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November 1, 2013 6:46 pm
Alexander Armstrong is late. The comedian and television presenter’s schedule is packed, yet he doesn’t blame his workload for his lateness. In any case, I can’t help but notice that alongside the pair of walking boots in the rear of his Audi estate car sit four crates of vintage wine.
“My father introduced me to fine wine and it’s become something of an expensive passion,” he says, smiling and gripping my hand. “I had to stop on the way here and collect these cases from an auction house. Some is an investment but I’m a firm believer in sampling the goods too.”
Armstrong, 43, made his name in the late 1990s as one half of the stand-up comedy duo Armstrong & Miller , and went on to star in TV series including Life Begins and the remake of Reggie Perrin. He’s also a regular presenter of the satirical news show Have I Got News For You. Pointless, the BBC’s successful weekday teatime game show, is into its sixth season and its related books – full of the obscure information that the show deals in – are best-sellers, written jointly by Armstrong and co-host Richard Osman.
We’re standing by the green in the immaculate village of Bledington, on the Gloucestershire-Oxfordshire border. Our six-mile walk to Lower Oddington and back will take us close to where Armstrong and his wife Hannah have just bought a 26-acre farm. Next summer, they will leave London and move to the country full-time with Rex, six, Paddy, four, and Edward, three.
“The boys are excited at the prospect of having some animals,” says Armstrong. “We’re planning a small herd of Dexter cattle and pigs, although the children have been asking about buying a pet too. I had a dog when I was a boy so I’m sure they will get their own way. I remember I came home from boarding school one holiday and discovered my father had given it away, to a friend who he felt needed a canine companion more than I did.”
As we leave Bledington green, our route out of the village on Chapel Street takes us past a row of half-timbered cottages. A container of windfall fruit has been left for passers-by, so we pick out a couple of ripe apples for our journey. As it’s already late afternoon we hasten past St Leonard’s Church, whose west wall bears a series of 12th-century carved heads. Cutting through the newer cemetery, we stride west across open fields.
The undulating hills are very different to the windswept terrain of Northumberland where Armstrong grew up. “My father is a GP but we lived in the wilds of nowhere and our nearest neighbours were miles away. The joy of the Cotswolds is that we won’t be so cut off and the locals are easier to understand.”
After skirting the edge of Westcote Brook, our route takes a sharp turn north and along a track, before a gentle climb to the brow of Pebbly Hill. There are expansive views of the Evenlode Valley as we pass farmhouses and sheep pastures. A series of footbridges carries us across the streams and ditches that punctuate the route.
When Armstrong was nine, he joined St Mary’s Music School in Edinburgh, boarding as a chorister. That early love of singing continues: baritone Armstrong fronts his own band for a show that melds comedy with jazz standards and pop classics. “Singing is a totally different experience to being a comedian,” he says. “You’re opening yourself up and expressing your emotions. You really have to put your heart into a performance and that can be very revealing. If I hadn’t been a comic I would have loved to have followed a musical path. Having my own band now helps me scratch that itch.”
Armstrong studied English at Trinity College, Cambridge, and in his final year joined the Footlights theatrical club, alongside contemporaries such as Sacha Baron Cohen. “I thought that when I left Cambridge I would know exactly what I wanted to do but I didn’t have a clue,” he recalls. In the end he started a comedy club with friends in London and was introduced to Ben Miller – they became a double act that was nominated for the Perrier Award at the 1996 Edinburgh Fringe. “That was a turning point,” he says. “It made me realise that I could make a living from comedy.” The Armstrong & Miller format was so successful that it soon transferred to TV.
With the afternoon sun fading, we reach the Church of St Nicholas, just outside Lower Oddington. Inside the nave is an important medieval doom painting – depicting the Last Judgment – believed to date from 1340. The church stands in peaceful woodland but we have little time to stop and admire the view. Armstrong says he will come back with his family when they are settled in their new home.
“I do love walking. It’s the one form of exercise that recharges my batteries and lets me relax. My biggest problem is finding the time to stop working. I hope moving to the Cotswolds will change all that.”
Daylight has almost gone as we meet the bridleway as it turns south through the woods of Lower Oddington Ashes, then disappears into near darkness ahead of us. The path connects here with part of the North Cotswold Diamond Way, a 60-mile “diamond-shaped” walk centred on Stow-on-the-Wold. It’s well marked and will guide us the last few miles back to Bledington green.
By now it’s 6pm and we can see television screens lighting up sitting rooms along the final few hundred yards of our walk. Suddenly, I find myself walking alone and turn round to see Armstrong on the pavement behind me, craning his neck to peer through a window.
Pointless has just finished screening, and a sheepish Armstrong rejoins me. “I thought it might be amusing if that family looked up and saw me walking by, if they’d just seen me on TV.”
Alexander Armstrong and His Band are at the Oxford Playhouse on November 4. To comment, please email firstname.lastname@example.org
“The 100 Most Pointless Arguments In The World”, by Alexander Armstrong and Richard Osman, is published in hardcover by Hodder & Stoughton, £14.99
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