A Somerset Girl

PUBLISHED: 15:48 17 March 2008 | UPDATED: 15:04 20 February 2013

Jane Ashdown walking the dog. By Mike Alsford

Jane Ashdown walking the dog. By Mike Alsford

The local shop and pub in Norton Sub Hamdon pretend not to know where Lord and Lady Ashdown live when prying eyes come calling. And Jane, who is wary of the press, is extremely grateful for the protection afforded to the couple by their friends an...

Jane Courtenay was born in Burnham-on-Sea where she enjoyed "an idyllic, happy childhood" riding her bike around the town. "I had a fantastic time doing all the things that a kid in Burnham would do. In the summer we would get up early, avoiding the holidaymakers, and go fishing for tiddlers in a rhyne. We took the sea for granted really but because of all the mud on the beach we would always have to come home and have a bath!"

Her education began at a kindergarten in Rectory Road, followed by St Christopher's (www.burnham-on-sea.co.uk/stchris/), and then Jane and her sister left for school in Bournemouth. "I was awarded a scholarship to go to art college and had three glorious years studying interior design at Bristol." After that Jane worked in London for a year before returning to Somerset to work for a local company of interior designers.

She was 21 when she married Paddy, a 20-year-old second lieutenant in the Royal Marines. "We were very young - just children really," says Jane.

Paddy left the Royal Marines in 1972 and joined the Foreign Office, and by now he and Jane had two children, Simon and Kate. When he resigned in 1976 he was unemployed for six months before working for Westland, Morlands, and later as a youth worker.

Paddy was selected as Liberal Parliamentary Candidate for the Yeovil constituency in 1976 and he entered Parliament at the 1983 General Election.

"Life was not so easy before he was elected. He had two periods of unemployment and how we survived I do not know. We went apple picking because the benefit was £62 a fortnight, with two teenagers who wouldn't stop growing. And we had a beaten-up old Renault 5 with the windows hanging out."

Once he was elected leader of the Liberal Democrats in 1988, there was the obligatory round of state banquets and diplomatic receptions to attend. She recalls particularly her meetings with Nelson Mandela, Lech Walesa and Desmond Tutu.

I wondered if she found meeting some of the world's most powerful people overwhelming but Lady Ashdown is not easily intimidated. "We are all human beings; we all come into the world the same way and I am not fazed by these people. I am a liberal and I believe in equality, and people are people whatever their creed or nationality."

Jane also spent time in Bosnia when Paddy was the international community's high representative there. "In Bosnia I met some humbling people. Some of the women had managed to survive under the most horrendous circumstances and your priorities change when you experience that sort of thing."

Paddy stood down as the leader of the Liberal Democrats in 1999 and retired from the Commons in 2001. His wife says he is rather enjoying life.

"He has just written a book on peace and reconciliation which is definitely his subject now. Life is good and the only thing that neither of us like is getting older, but that's inevitable. We have this young Collie cross who insists on her walks and she keeps us going."

Somerset has always been special for Jane whose grandmother lived in Castle Cary and great-grandmother in Shepton Beauchamp.

"We feel we belong to the village; our kids went to school here. Politics just doesn't come into it"

The couple, who now have three grandchildren, first settled in their cottage in Norton Sub Hamdon (www.nortonsubhamdon.org.uk) in 1972. "We have been very happy here. The village is just the best place on earth. We feel we belong to the village; our kids went to school here and I belonged to the WI when we had one. Politics just doesn't come into it. The village was kind enough to let Paddy take its name for his title - Lord Ashdown of Norton Sub Hamdon." (www.libdems.org.uk/party/people/ashdown-of-norton-sub-hamdon.0002.html)

Gardening is a passion for Jane and recently Lord and Lady Ashdown became the latest Somerset residents to sign up to the Somerset Waste Partnership's Pledge to Recycle Campaign, which aims to encourage people to recycle their household waste. "I hate throwing away anything that can be recycled and we compost like mad. Our compost heap is huge!" BY SARAH FORD. PHOTO BY MIKE ALSFORD (www.alsfordpictures.com)

Mike Alsford is happy to carry out portrait shoots for both professional and private clients. For more information visit www.alsfordpictures.com.

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