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Lady Bathurst: The Cycling Philanthropist

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The Right Honourable Countess Bathurst, affectionately known as Lady B, has long been involved in her local community. She lives with the Earl (and her beloved dogs) at Cirencester Park and has served as president and patron of many local charities, as well as a stint as High Sheriff of Gloucestershire and Ambassador for the Office of the Police and Crime Commissioner for the county.

In Mary 2022 she founded a new charity, the National Foundation for Retired Service Animals (NFRSA) and has since tirelessly raised funds and awareness in support of faithful animals who have spent their lives in service. In 2023 she cycled from Land's End to John O'Groats, joined along the way by high profile supporters including Ben Miller, Jackie Llewellyn Bowen and Nick Knowles. As she traversed the UK she visited emergency service stations to hear stories of real people and their animal partners from Police, Prison, Fire and Rescue, Border Force and Police Scotland. Her achievements are impressive – and somewhat daunting – but in person I found her to be warm, funny, friendly and utterly dedicated to her cause.

What led you to found the National Foundation for Retired Service Animals (NFRSA)?

I am a great believer that if you want to get something done, get on and do it – don't wait for somebody else and I passionately wanted to start the charity because I saw a need - and not just for police dogs and horses, but also prison; fire and rescue; border force; and national crime agency dogs. 

I had the idea initially in 2016 when I was High Sheriff of Gloucestershire but wasn't able to do anything about it until 2020 due to various factors. My husband had been seriously ill, and I was focusing on getting him fit again, and at the same time, I was renovating a property in the Forest of Dean, so it wasn’t until the year of Covid that I was able to start putting the plan together. There was an enormous amount of preparation to do, so we didn’t launch until May 2022, but the first two years have been extraordinary, and we have just reached the milestone of gifting £50,000 in grants, which makes us all very proud. 


A huge amount of work has been put into the NFRSA and I’m endlessly grateful for the dedication, commitment and passion of our hardworking management committee, with the support of amazing board of trustees. I may be the ‘face’ of the charity but there’s a really strong team who are making a big difference - it’s not just me, and none of this would have happened without them. 

Gerry Slade Photography

Tell us about bicycling across the UK. I understand you did this to raise money but also raised a lot of awareness when you ‘went viral’.

I absolutely loved the Lands End to John O’Groats adventure, it was without doubt the best three weeks of my life. I can’t tell you how much fun it was, and there were so many wonderful aspects to it – apart from the day I nearly getting killed, which caused rather a lot of unscheduled excitement. 

We happened to get it on video, sharing it on social media more for amusement, and to my slight surprise it went viral and seemed to excite huge debate. It was an interesting reflection of society because not only did it get over two million views, but the reaction was startling to say the least. I think they’re still arguing about who was right and who was wrong now. I see tweets on the subject and am genuinely mystified at how vehement people can be.

Well yes, but I’m guessing you are able to engage them once they’ve finished laughing or arguing?

I do get slightly tempted to suggest that instead of arguing about it, they may like to see the whole reason for the ride and perhaps donate!

There were so many aspects of the challenge that were fantastic. I have many fond memories: I was so lucky to have the opportunity to see this beautiful country from a bike seat at 15mph, rather than 60mph, and I had wonderful companions, including my best friend from school, Alice, who bravely joined me for the entire three weeks.  Alice rode the majority of the time, or drove the support vehicle, and I also had lovely Tom Wakefield from Cotswolds TV, who filmed the whole adventure. They are both such a positive lights in my life and a huge support. Tom is making a documentary and I’m so looking forward to seeing it. 

  The real joy was my other riding companions. Every day I had somebody by my side - and all were dog handlers from one of the services. So I had prison officers, border force, fire, and police accompanying me, and we had hours to talk and get to know each other, and they were kind enough to teach me so much about their work and their amazing canine partners. 

They were all keen cyclists, and arrived on wonderful carbon road bikes which weigh about three ounces, with all the kit - incredibly professional. And there was me on my Porsche e-bike, much heavier. Before anyone says ‘oh that’s easy’ believe me it isn’t. It may be ‘assisted’ but you do have to peddle every inch. On the flat it’s quite heavy and because I’m stubborn I refuse to put it on assist, so I actually cycle. My lovely companions left me standing on their lighter bikes and whizzed past me, politely waiting for me at various points to catch up.

  However, when it came to the steeper hills, my bike came into its own with the assist gear and while they’d be straining up the incline, bouncing from side to side and getting somewhat pink, I’d glide elegantly up beside them and casually say, ‘So, what made you want to go into the prison service?’ and they'd give me one those looks, ‘Really?? You want to talk about that now?’ 

Brilliant. 

It did make me smile, but they were unendingly supportive, and it meant so much to me they were willing to get involved. 

I had a few rest days to give my legs a break and took the opportunity to visit various police dog sections, police horses, as well as prisons. It was a huge privilege to meet them all, they’re passionate about their animals and so proud of them, as well they should be.

We all see the role of the NFRSA being not just to raise money for these exceptional animals in their retirement, but also to educate our supporters about the job they do, and by talking to the handlers we always learn more. It’s surprising how many of us don’t realise how much they protect us; border force dogs, fire investigation dogs, general purpose dogs, specialist search dogs, or prison dogs; working in the background to keep us safe. For instance, anyone who has gone through an airport or gone on a ship, they’ve all been watched over by a border force dog. You don’t see them, but they are there quietly protecting the public from harm.

With respect, does it actually matter if people don’t know the specifics of what these animals do? It seems to me that as soon as one hears these dogs and horses leave service with no ongoing support, it is immediately obvious that there must be some funding available to them or their handlers.

There are plenty of people who think ‘it’s an absolute disgrace, these animals should be kept and looked after the rest of their lives’: that’s one half of the population. Then the other half view them with majestic indifference and ask ‘why should I be paying for a dog who lies on the sofa all day’? They perhaps don’t appreciate what they have done during their careers. 

It's a very difficult position for those who control budgets as they have to justify every penny to the taxpayers. I completely understand that, but anyone who owns a pet knows vets bills can be a challenge, so I do wish insurance companies would step up and recognise the contribution our service animals have made, and that’s something that we’re hoping to work on. 

Having said that, many of the vets who look after the retired service animals registered with the NFRSA have been hugely supportive, and offer their clients a discount, and that’s been hugely helpful. When they do so, we provide a certificate acknowledging their kindness, which they can display in their surgeries. 

  We're also incredibly lucky to have two amazing vets, Rod Benson and Rob Darvill from Benson and Babb in Cirencester, who sit on our Grants Panel. When an application for assistance comes in they make sense of the medical notes and very often will offer free advice to the owners, we could not operate without our two experts. 

  But as a charity, while negotiating these discounts the bills need to be paid and public support is vital. As we grow, we hope everyone will get involved; go on a sponsored dog walk, have a coffee morning or consider us if they’re taking on a challenge – like my bike ride. And, we have other options like the Paws for a Coffee campaign which can be found on our website. Sacrificing one coffee per month and giving that £3 to the NFRSA would make such a difference. 

I’ve heard you described as a ‘tour-de-force’ and I can see why. What gives you the energy to do this? 

I’m passionate about the charity and so I drive forward, as I genuinely believe in what we’re doing. I know what these extraordinary animals do, and I’ve seen them in action as well as in training. I’ve talked to their handlers, and they’re inspirational. The NFRSA is everything to us, it’s a family, and we hope it achieves what we set out to do. It’s a lot of work for the team, but we’re determined to make a difference, although we could perhaps do with more than 24 hours in a day. 

nfrsa.org.uk

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