The LOCATION is almost as impressive as the guest list. On Wednesday, beneath a sacred tree on the summit of a hill overlooking the South African veld, Sir Richard Branson’s son and heir Sam ties the knot with society blonde Isabella Calthorpe.
The ceremony will be attended by 300 of their closest friends, many of whom are also intimates of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge — prompting social commentators to dub this the ‘nearly Royal Wedding’ of 2013.
There are several tantalising royal connections. Glamorous Isabella is the girl who turned down Prince William. He was smitten for a while, and Prince Charles was so keen on her he let it be known that he ‘approved’.
Then there is the fact — devastating to the legions of female fans hoping to bag the ‘spare’ — that Prince Harry is now the boyfriend of Isabella’s younger half-sister, Cressida Bonas. Although Harry announced the relationship himself in a public display of affection on the ski slopes of Verbier last month, he won’t be going to South Africa with Cressie.
The ginger one apparently thinks it might excite too much speculation to attend a family wedding with his girlfriend this early in the relationship. He may have had to flee back to Vegas if Cressida caught the bouquet.
Princesses will be present in the form of the York girls, Beatrice and Eugenie, now as thick with the Bransons as they are with the Windsors.
And, of course, there will be the Virgin prince: Sam, the 27-year-old heir to the £3.4 billion fortune of Sir Richard, who is the closest thing we have to business royalty. Sam is a film-maker, a former male model and a tiny bit of a playboy.
The last of the guests will arrive today but Isabella, her fiance and their immediate families have already spent a week at the venue, Sir Richard’s private safari reserve, Ulusaba, on the edge of the Kruger National Park in South Africa.
The reserve is home to a number of luxurious lodges located beneath a canopy of ancient trees on the edge of a dry riverbed. To add to the sense of adventure, guests have to cross rope bridges between tree house-style lodges, with local wildlife passing by.
There is a Treehouse Suite overlooking the nearby Xikwenga Dam. There are also Safari, Elephant and River Rooms, among others. Some have private plunge pools.
Sam and Isabella are staying in one of the Elephant Rooms and will honeymoon in the Treehouse Suite, a 15-minute walk along a raised walkway from the main lodge. All of the lodges have bedrooms that open up to the elements and vast baths made of locally quarried stone which allow guests to bathe under the stars.
The happy couple have been taking romantic game drives alone, often at sunset, and are said to have been particularly excited at seeing a lioness and her new cubs, as well as a leopard and her young. One member of the wedding party said: ‘They look unbelievably happy and very excited.’
So who’s who at this happy event in the heart of the African veld?
HERE COMES THE BRIDE ...
Isabella Amaryllis Charlotte Anstruther-Gough-Calthorpe, 32 — understandably, she calls herself Isabella Calthorpe — is the girl who might have been Queen.
She turned Prince William down in 2007, during his brief split with Kate Middleton. She was the only girl who could make Kate feel insecure. Now Isabella — who bears some resemblance to William’s mother, Diana — is joining the court of Branson instead.
However, royal relations are on a friendly footing; Isabella was invited to William’s royal wedding, although Sam was not.
Isabella attended Heathfield girls’ boarding school in Ascot then went to Edinburgh University. As an actress, she has played Astrid Kirchherr, girlfriend of fifth Beatle Stuart Sutcliffe in the stage musical Backbeat, had a part in a West End production of Chariots Of Fire, and featured in several horror films — in one she played a girl who returns to her ancestral home, shoots herself and turns into a beast.
In another she has to run across the Isle of Mull in her underwear being chased by animal activists.
... AND HER VERY COLOURFUL FAMILY
Isabella’s mother is Lady Mary Gaye Curzon, daughter of the 6th Earl Howe. A vivacious Sixties deb, Lady Mary is now the mother of four blonde moppets (Georgiana, Isabella, Pandora and Cressida).
She is particularly good at arranging weddings, having had four of them herself. When one daughter has become a Branson, why shouldn’t the next become a Windsor?
John Anstruther-Gough-Calthorpe, Isabella’s father, is the big, blond, younger son of a baronet. He made money in property and used to be chairperson of various companies.
He is now remarried to Vanessa, the mother of his younger two children; a former model, Vanessa was previously married to Sir Dai Llewellyn, the late ‘seducer of the Valleys’. Through both her parents, Isabella is descended from Charles II.
In Isabella’s multi-pack of gregarious siblings, the most newsworthy is Cressida Bonas, 23, Lady Mary Gaye’s youngest child by her third ex-husband, Jeffrey Bonas.
Dance student Cressida is the first girl Harry has seemed serious about since Chelsy Davy, so all eyes will be on her when the bride isn’t looking. Particularly when she stands up to sing, because one-time would-be pop star Cressida — she was offered the part of Posh in a Spice Girls musical — is performing as part of the entertainment.
Understandably, she is trying to shake off her various silly nicknames — the Franglais-style ‘Bonne Ass’ and Cressy Bone.
It is not known whether her romance has yet received the royal seal of approval from Charles, but it has had the next best thing — last summer Sir Richard generously bestowed his blessing by allowing Harry and Cressie to cavort around Necker Island, just before the Prince went AWOL in Las Vegas.
Isabella has two other beautiful younger sisters, Gabriella and Octavia, her father’s daughters by his second marriage. Gabriella calls herself Gabriella Wilde — she changed her name because A-G-C was such a tongue-twister. Gabriella is a Burberry model and has a part in the forthcoming remake of Carrie starring Julianne Moore.
Then there’s dashing polo-playing brother Jacobi Anstruther-Gough-Calthorpe, 27, son of Lady Mary and John. A friend of William’s from Ludgrove prep school, he once ran a PR company and now works in finance. An archetypal man about town, he recently split from hotelier Sir Rocco Forte’s daughter, Irene.
THE UBIQUITOUS BRANSONS
Five years younger than his bride, Sam Branson is, oddly for the heir to an airline, an environmentalist. He is also a documentary film-maker. His company, Sundog Pictures, released Breaking The Taboo, a documentary about on the war on drugs, which advocates legalisation.
More philanthropist than entrepreneur, he likes planning sporting challenges for charity; he arranged for 32 people (including Isabella, Cressida and Princess Beatrice) to run a marathon together dressed as a caterpillar.
He is very close to his elder sister, Holly. The sensible elder sibling, who qualified as a doctor and now works for her father, Holly is often seen as the natural successor to the Virgin crown. She and shipbroker Fred Andrews married on Necker a year ago. Dr Holly is a friend of Kate Middleton and was one of the few to attend Kate’s hen night.
Then there are the parents — the in-every-photo Sir Richard, 62, founder of Virgin, who now has his own space tourism firm, and the much less in-your-face Joan. And the matriarch: Richard’s mother Eve. She is Virgin’s equivalent of the Queen Mother.
There is also an Oscar-winning actress on the Branson side: Kate Winslet, who married Richard’s nephew, Ned Rocknroll. She fell for him on Necker a couple of years ago, having arrived with a male model who was dumped for Rocknroll. Kate carried Granny Eve Branson to safety during a fire on the island.
THE PERKY PRINCESSES
The Yorks and the Bransons are closely entwined. Otto Brockway, the ex-boyfriend of Princess Eugenie, is Branson’s nephew. Princess Beatrice’s boyfriend, American-born Dave Clark, works for Virgin Galactic. It was Eugenie, a close friend of Harry’s, who first introduced the Prince to Cressida Bonas. Hence the York girls skiiing with Cressida and Harry last week.
Cressida’s present position at the heart of things puts the Yorks firmly back in the centre of the royal picture, too.
Heading in from New York will be Sam’s best friend, Calvin Klein jeans model Jamie Burke. He had a fling with Kate Moss on Necker — where else — in 2005. Jamie then moved on to Sienna Miller, Lindsay Lohan and Courtney Love. He is now the frontman of a band called Delilah.
Sam also has lots of friends from his boisterous public school, St Edward’s, Oxford. They include the jockey Sam Waley-Cohen, also a friend of William and Harry. (Sister Holly even married one her classmates from St Edward’s).
Another guest is Cosmo Feilding Mellen who directed Breaking The Taboo and is an executive at Sundog Pictures. His mother, the Countess of Wemyss, once drilled a hole in her head and his father Joseph wrote a book about the practice — ‘trepanation’ — called Bore Hole. Enthusiasts maintain that trepanning supposedly allows the brain more oxygen and leads to enhanced perception.
Xan Morgan, of the Morgan cars family, will also be there. Close friends from William and Harry’s set who are attending include multi-millionaire Arthur Landon, who was with Harry in Vegas, and Harry’s right-hand man Tom Inskip.
Sources say the couple — who have been dating for seven years — are marrying under a Marula tree at Nelson’s Koppie (a koppie is a rocky granite hill — why it is named ‘Nelson’s’ is unknown) which is on the nearby Inyati Private Game Reserve. It was a spot selected by Sam and Isabella.
The Inyati Private Game Reserve is set in 65,000 hectares of unspoiled bushveld within the Sabi Sand Reserve, adjacent to the Kruger National Park. It is one of Africa’s richest wilderness areas.
The Marula is sacred in South Africa. Because of its shade-bearing foliage it is often the spiritual centre for village rituals. Legend says a woman can take bark from the male or female tree to determine the sex of her baby.
There are parties before and after the ceremony which require multiple costume changes — though there won’t be a tie in sight. The groom will probably wear a suit by Ozwald Boateng, the celebrated London tailor for whom he has worked as a model.
The Justicia Best Boys Choir, a choral group from a local village, will perform at the wedding.
The celebrations will include a ‘White Mischief’ party — a nod to the hedonistic ‘Happy Valley’ set of Brits who settled in Kenya during the 1920s and 1930s — lit up by specially-made neon lights, and a fancy dress bash demanding animal costumes. Richard’s mother, Eve, says she is going as a ladybird.
All this has been co-ordinated by Alexia Hargrave, Branson’s one-time PR, who organised Holly’s wedding on Necker.
Guests will also be visiting local community projects. Branson has his own charity in the region, called Pride ’* Purpose, helping disadvantaged communities.
On Tuesday, wedding guests had a 10am bush breakfast at a spot called Treetops. Afterwards they held a bush Olympics, at which guests played soccer, participated in archery and raced each other in sack and egg-and-spoon races. -
© Daily Mail