May 17, 2013 6:44 pm

A walk with the FT: Ashmore Wood & Stubhampton Bottom

Anna Chancellor, star of ‘The Hour’ and immortalised as Duckface in ‘Four Weddings’, retraces the West Country landscapes of her childhood
Track to Ashmore©Michael Marten

Duckface isn’t the most endearing nickname but almost 20 years after filming Four Weddings and a Funeral, Anna Chancellor says the moniker has stuck. I am striding out with the actor through Ashmore Wood, near Shaftesbury, with only her dog Harvey and the sound of a busy woodpecker for company. It’s an area that reminds Chancellor of childhood rambles with her late mother and skinny-dipping in ice-cold ponds. “What’s crazy about my role as Henrietta in Four Weddings is that it was only a minor part. I did punch Hugh Grant’s character in the face when he dumped me at the altar but I never imagined that would become a career-defining moment. Even my husband calls me Duckface now – I’ve grown to rather like it.”

Chancellor, 48, grew up in Somerset but currently lives in Acton, west London, with her second husband, Redha Debbah. She attended school near Shaftesbury and still visits Dorset regularly to stay with her godmother. Ashmore itself is a pretty thatched village that, fittingly for someone with a nickname such as hers, surrounds a large duckpond.

Map of Ashmore Wood and Stubhampton Bottom

Map of Ashmore Wood and Stubhampton Bottom

The first stage of our route follows a wide forestry track, with neatly planted trees that suggest we could be entering a monotonous area of plantation woodland. However, as the track gently curves downhill towards Stubhampton Bottom, a variety of mixed conifers and broadleaved trees starts to appear on the site of what would have been a much older woodland.

Chancellor tells me she has wonderful memories of growing up. “When I was a child, my sisters and I would ride horses on tracks like this, near our family home in the Quantocks. We kept macaws as pets and they would dive-bomb us as we galloped for cover in the trees. I also adored walking with my mother. We would strip off and jump in a river, then shiver dry in a big fluffy towel.” Passing a junction with the Wessex Ridgeway Trail, our route turns uphill and through a valley to the edge of farmland, which affords us spectacular views south, towards Tarrant Gunville. Following the fenced edge of the field northeast, the aroma of wild garlic is almost overwhelming. Clumps of primrose are the only flower in bloom on the forest floor – which makes their bright yellow petals even more distinctive.

Anna Chancellor©Michael Marten

Anna Chancellor

After a happy childhood, Chancellor says her confidence took a knock when she was sent to board at St Mary’s School, a convent near Shaftesbury. “My primary school was a very sweet and easy-going place. There was a lot of drama and I was well-known for writing stories and reading them out to a round of applause. Then suddenly I found myself away from home and being ordered about by nuns. They were very strict about what we could and could not read. Even Wuthering Heights was questioned for being too racy.

“I dreaded the journey back to school after staying the weekend with my family in Somerset. Mum would drive me in her Renault 4 and there was a particular bridge near Shaftesbury that I hated because I knew I was very close to being dropped off. I was a serious underachiever at school and never did well at exams. I became obsessed with Bob Marley and, like lots of other teenagers, we would buy cigarettes. Occasionally, somebody would sneak in some marijuana, which caused a lot of excitement.”

After walking almost a mile along the side of the field, we turn sharp left into the heart of Ashmore Wood. About 50 deer cross right to left in front of us, moving so quietly that even Harvey is unaware. Then we are out into farmland again and from a sunny hilltop vantage point, we can see Ashmore below us in the distance. It’s a gentle stroll down to the village across open fields.

Chancellor moved to London when she was 17 and lived in a basement flat with a pet duck called Daphne. Later, she had a daughter, Poppy, with punk poet Jock Scott but the couple split up and she became a single mother. “It was a pretty chaotic lifestyle bringing up Poppy but I took her everywhere with me, even to gigs and parties. Landing the role of Henrietta in Four Weddings was a massive break for me. It gave me money, stability and led to other roles in Pride and Prejudice, Spooks and then Waking The Dead.”

In recent years, Chancellor has had more success on television, appearing in BBC drama The Hour, alongside Dominic West and Ben Whishaw, as well as sitcom Pramface, alongside Angus Deayton. “It’s a shame the BBC decided to axe The Hour,” says Chancellor. “I think we were all a little shocked when the announcement came a few months back. I’m now looking forward to working on stage again with Toby [Stephens] in Private Lives .” The acclaimed production of Noel Coward’s comedy is being revived for a summer run at The Gielgud Theatre in London, from next month, after selling out at the Chichester Festival Theatre last year.

The village pond in Ashmore©Michael Marten

The village pond in Ashmore, where maintenance work has temporarily led to a dramatic change of colour

As we arrive in Ashmore, I’m taken aback by the water in the village duckpond, which is a dazzling, Mediterranean blue. Chancellor tells me that maintenance work on the pond has resulted in a dramatic change of colour, causing some debate at the parish council.

Briefly retracing our steps, we head out of the village again on a quiet stretch of road towards Fontmell Magna, downhill and then left over a gate, skirting the edge of a ridge across a steeply sloping field. Washers Pit, the starting point of our circular walk, is now ahead and below us. We pass through another gate into woodland and then tread gingerly down a steep bank and back to the car. Our walk has taken just over two hours and we have only met one couple on the entire route.

It’s warm and Chancellor looks ready to jump in the nearest pond. Did she now have happy memories of the countryside around Shaftesbury? “I was terrible at school but I always loved this part of country. At least the duckpond is more talked about here than Duckface.”

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Anna Chancellor is appearing in ‘Private Lives’ at The Gielgud Theatre, London, from June 22 to September 21

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