My Countryside interview: Fern Britton

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I was born in West London, but my father was a young film star and so we moved out to Buckinghamshire, which had Denham Studios, Ealing Studios, the BBC and Pinewood within easy reach. It was a very sort of actor-y community. But when my parents divorced, we moved even further into the country to a little village called Chalfont St Giles. Behind our house were acres and acres of farmland. And so I would take myself off and walk across the fields. There was a lovely little woodland, which I used to think of as ‘Dingly Dell’. I would imagine the pixies and the fairies using fallen tree trunks as their runwasy. Mum let us roam free. I think she was keeping an eye on me from afar, but I felt liberated.

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I get away from it by simply being at home and closing the front door. And working in the garden. We have quite a large garden in Bucks, an orchard and a duck pond. As soon as I knew that this was this other place called Cornwall, I fell in love with it. And now we live there half the time. We take the dogs for a walk along the cliffs but I can sit in the bathroom and watch the harvest happening in the field across the valley.

I particularly love Halton Quay, which is on the Cornish side of the river Tamar. It used to be a quayside for the Tamar barges to deliver coal and take the iron away. And if you lie there on a summer’s day with a book and a drink, you hear a salmon leaping and that’s heaven.

Cornwall is the major character in my story, and it’s eternal. It’ll always be there, and when I started writing it was just a no-brainer to be in Cornwall writing stuff about the village life I know. The human characters are amalgamations of people I’ve met all over the place.

The 17Th Century Bathing Hut On The Banks Of The River Tamer At Pentillie Castle Near St Mellion In Cornwall, England, Britain, UK. (Photo by: Education Images/UIG via Getty Images)
17th century bathing hut on the River Tamar, near Halton Quay/Credit: Getty Images

England has its own softness and it’s such a pleasing beauty, the softness and the curve of the South Downs against the blue sky. Listening to the skylarks and climbing a stile and sniffing the hedgerows – all of it is a symphony of peace and happiness.

As soon as I find where the land meets the sea, I could sit and look at that for days on end. One of our loveliest moments was last Halloween, and my daughter and I went down in the dark to the beach in Cornwall, and we set up a little Trangier and she boiled up a kettle of tea. We had fish and chips by candlelight and watched the stars as they came out.

If I were a British wild animal I’d love to be a wild cat, and going out and catching my prey and sneaking around so that no one really knew me or could see me. I’d love that.

If I could change something about the countryside, I’d reduce the number of telegraph poles and wires – and there are too many road signs. But I quite like those giant pylons that walk across the countryside.

CHALFONT ST GILES, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 21: A sign for Chalfont St Giles, which lies near to the proposed HS2 route, stands in the village green on February 21, 2017 in Chalfont St Giles, England. The HS2 Hybrid Bill, which allows building to begin on the High Speed 2 Rail Network, passes into law on Thursday. The network will provide a high speed rail link from London to the West Midlands, known as Phase 1, with Phase 2 expected to connect Birmingham with Leeds and Manchester. (Photo by Jack Taylor/Getty Images)
Fern grew up in Chalfont St Giles, Buckinghamshire/Credit: Getty Images

My husband [chef Phil Vickery] is a big country hero of mine because he’s extremely good at animal welfare. His pigs are always happy and always well looked after. The vet has said to him, ‘I wish all the pigs I saw were like this and happy’. A few months ago, we heard this screaming in the night, and we went out in our wellingtons and pajamas and found a Muntjac deer that had been caught in some barbed wire. Phil got him unhooked from this barbed wire and he ran off and… I was so proud of Phil for doing that. He even saved a seagull when we were in Cornwall.

Aside from my family, I think my proudest achievement is cycling from John O’ Groats to Land’s End. I did it for charity, there were 26 of us who did the whole thing and lots of wonderful supporters who joined us for different legs of it. I think we took 19 days and it was wonderful to see the countryside unfolding before us. We started in May and as we came down the country, spring was awakening around us.

My favourite rural memory also involves cycling. I took my little daughter with a friend and her daughter, and we started on the Reading canal and cycled to Cornwall. It was beautiful. We were riding along towpaths crammed with every known and possibly unknown wild flower you could imagine. My worst experience was on the same trip. I went right instead of left and I ended up with my head down in nettles, feet in the air and the bike on top of me. It made my daughter laugh.

I’m shocked to tell you, I do cream first then jam on scones. I am an anomaly because the Cornish way is jam first, then cream. I prefer to pretend the cream is butter.

TV presenter Fern Britton’s latest novel, Coming Home (set in Cornwall) is out now

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Main image credit: Getty