A walk with the FT: Wicken-Leckhampstead

Tara Fitzgerald arrives for our walk wearing a black woollen coat she later tells me she bought in Chelsea Girl 25 years ago. The sleeves are now six inches too short and her only other protection from what turns out to be unremitting rain is a long burgundy scarf. The star of Brassed Off, Sirens and the television series Waking the Dead is, however, perfectly dressed to audition for a windswept moor scene in Wuthering Heights. (Only later do I learn that the actress’s great-aunt, Geraldine Fitzgerald, appeared alongside Laurence Olivier in the famed 1939 film version.)

“I do have a ‘serious walker’ outfit at home but I was seduced by the potential of spring sunshine when I woke up this morning. I imagined a hearty stroll across the fields but it’s turned out to be dramatic Shakespearean weather instead,” says Fitzgerald, who is currently on tour with the Royal Shakespeare Company. At least her footwear is up to the job – a heavyweight pair of boots that have the scars of previous treks scored deep into the leather.

We have planned a circular route out of the historic village of Wicken, some five miles west of Milton Keynes, to marry up with the arrival there of the RSC’s production of The Winter’s Tale. The countryside around the city is remarkably untouched. Thatched villages are scattered across undulating fields and, apart from the occasional roar of Silverstone racetrack, little disturbs the peace. Medieval Wicken Church is our starting point but, as the weather worsens, rather than explore it we decide to set off as quickly as possible. After skirting the churchyard via a tree-lined avenue, we turn left down a muddy footpath and stride out west across open fields.

“I have a house in Cornwall,” Fitzgerald says. “I love walking along the coastal paths. I’m used to the rain but I hate the cold. I was filming in the Czech Republic once, and it was so cold I thought I was going to collapse. An extra offered me her shawl and I realised some people can just cope with that sort of thing. I can’t!”

We are heading for a distant pylon along a muddy bridle path. We have a fit of the giggles as we kick our feet, trying to dislodge the thick soil from our boots. On a clear day this is a glorious walk, with unspoilt views stretching for miles.

Tara Fitzgerald

From Monday, Fitzgerald can be seen in the epic HBO fantasy drama Game of Thrones, whose third series starts on Sky Atlantic HD. She plays Selyse Baratheon, wife of Stephen Dillane’s Stannis Baratheon. Despite my offering her a piggyback to the shelter of the next hedge, she refuses to reveal a single plotline, saying only that her scenes were shot in Northern Ireland. “I’m sworn to secrecy. The show has such a huge fan base that everybody wants to know what happens next. I can’t even say if I’m going to be part of any future series.”

We find respite in a corner of Leckhampstead Wood. The track then joins a road before heading back out, along the edge of a field and on to a barn. We shelter in its lee before Fitzgerald, fortified with a menthol cigarette and Extra Strong Mints, is ready to stride off. “It’s not the smoking that has given me a husky voice. I always played male roles in the school play – including Napoleon.”

Fitzgerald, 45, was born in Sussex and lived briefly in the Bahamas before the family moved again when she was three. Her mother’s second marriage was to an actor and the family toured theatres before settling in London. “I loved Hollywood musicals and would dance around in the living room to Top Hat when I was a child. I was shattered when I found out that I had no vocal range whatsoever. I couldn’t even hold a note.”

After failing auditions for Rada and Guildhall theatre schools, she was finally accepted by Drama Centre London. As soon as she graduated, she was cast in Peter Chelsom’s Hear My Song, opposite Adrian Dunbar. “I was incredibly lucky to go straight into a film role. I thought I would end up being a waitress. I’ve always been a worrier and I thought it would be very hard to find work. Now, not knowing what my next job will be is a part of acting that I actually like.”

After Hear My Song, Fitzgerald starred with Hugh Grant in 1994’s Sirens – and, she now comments wryly, “I did have to do an awful lot of nude scenes when I first started in film. One of the great things about getting older is that you don’t have to take your clothes off any more.”

‘Devil’s Tree’ stands along a track heading south towards Leckhampstead

We ford several streams via slippery plank bridges, before reaching Leckhampstead village. Our route heads left here along the road and passes St Mary’s Church on the right. We follow a farm track that forks off to the left just before a stream, then crosses a field and climbs up a hill. Fitzgerald’s feet are swamped in mud again and her coat is soaking up water like a sponge.

Despite the heavy going, we eventually reach a stile and cross over close to some houses. The footpath traverses a meadow that today, alas, is sodden. We are running late to get Fitzgerald home for curtain up and I’m worried she might twist an ankle in the rush. “The only injury I have ever had was as Ophelia, slicing part of my ear off in the mad scene in Hamlet. I was meant to cut a chunk of hair off my wig but missed. It was very messy,” she said.

Wicken Church tower is in sight now but I’m just relieved to get our leading lady back safely. As I wring out my socks, Fitzgerald swaps her muddy boots for diamond-buckled shoes and then checks her make-up, in true theatrical fashion. Then she is whisked off to Milton Keynes, mud still clinging to the bottom of her trousers.

‘The Winter’s Tale’ is on tour to Edinburgh, Hull and Stoke; www.rsc.org.uk.

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