Interview with Atlantis star and Alton resident Sarah Parish

Sarah Parish at her home near Alton

Sarah Parish at her home near Alton - Credit: Archant

Atlantis star Sarah Parish is juggling a house move, motherhood and a busy career but she still makes time to raise money for a cause that is close to her heart, discovers Viv Micklefield on a visit to her home near Alton

Sarah Parish flops down on a garden bench, bathed in sunshine. “It’s really quite a magical place. I didn’t think I’d find somewhere in the country where I have a better social life than I did in Soho,” Sarah laughs, referring to her corner of Hampshire. Relaxing in the garden provides a rare opportunity for the Cutting It actress (the breakthrough drama based in a hairdressers) to grab a few moments of peace away from the cameras and the demands of being a working mum.

But, never one to sit still for long, an impending move is on Sarah’s mind and she’s not left anything to chance. When it came to the location, she timed the drive and confirms that it takes ten minutes door-to-door from her current house - in the picture-postcard hamlet of Lower Wield near Alton - to the new one in Ovington.

Tucked away down a maze of narrow lanes, sandwiched between high hedgerows and thatched cottages, this rural idyll was something of a chance discovery for the Somerset-born actress. “I’m a real country girl and that’s never really left me, and I think my husband Jim (actor James Murray) felt the same,” says Sarah, 46.

“We met in London and even though it’s a fantastic place, I wanted the children to have the upbringing that I did: to be able to make dens, to run about, and to have their independence.

“Our search area was quite wide and the agent’s photos of this house were so bad that Jim had written it off. But I came along anyway and although it was pouring with rain, inside all the fires were lit and I just fell in love with the place. It’s so full of charm and has a real soul to it.”

Grainy black and white photos hanging on the walls of the beamed living room reveal the house’s origins as an 18th century pub, the name of which came from the much earlier corn mill that stood here. Recognising its potential, the couple wasted no time in knocking through rooms, taking out false ceilings, adding a bathroom and moving the main staircase. Furnished with sumptuous sofas, soft lighting and natural finishes, the result is the epitome of the relaxed country lifestyle that Sarah clearly adores.

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“It’s a kooky house, but some houses are. I’m sure that sometimes when I go to sleep, I can hear the voices of people in the old pub. I thought at first that it was Jim with the TV on. For a village that once had two pubs for just 19 houses, they were quite a bunch of drinkers. One pub sold spirits, the other beer. So, you could go to The Yew Tree and have a whisky, or come here to The Windmill for a pint. I just find it all fascinating.”

These days, as well as The Yew Tree, another favourite local for Sarah and Jim is The Woolpack in Northington, a village that holds a special resonance for the couple as it’s where they got married in 2007.

Whilst other commitments this year have forced Sarah to neglect her beloved vegetable garden, the family still enjoys eating freshly prepared food every night, thanks to Jim’s culinary skills.

However, with his fishing paraphernalia jostling for floor space and the demands of a growing family, they have reluctantly decided to move. Fortunately, Sarah’s house-hunting skills came to the fore again and led her to Ovington, a village on the banks of the River Itchen.

“It’s in a beautiful part of Hampshire with fishing rights. I thought, ‘Jim will love me forever’ if we go for this one.”

Sarah is someone who appears naturally upbeat but she has had her fair share of adversity to overcome since the birth of the couple’s first child, Ella-Jayne, in May 2008. “We had very little knowledge that there was something wrong when I had a 20-week scan,” sasy Sarah, “but Ella-Jayne was born five weeks premature at Winchester Hospital and it quickly became apparent that she was very poorly. The next day, she was rushed to the paediatric intensive care unit (PICU) at Southampton General. It’s so frightening. With your first child you’re eternally optimistic and suddenly she’s got pipes and tubes coming out of everywhere.”

Ella-Jayne’s eight-month battle to overcome a congenital heart defect involved two major operations and frequent hospital vigils for the new parents.

“After four months it was plain to see that Ella-Jayne was never going to get any better, but thanks to the amazing staff at PICU, she was able to come home and we’ve got great memories of that Christmas. She chose the night of the 3rd January 2009 to pass away in her sleep. It was heartbreaking but she’d tried her hardest and had obviously just had enough.”

The desire to give something back to those who’d given them this precious time with their daughter saw Sarah and Jim becoming Friends of PICU patrons. And keen to take an active role in helping the hospital to care for other critically ill children, they raised an impressive £100,000, by taking on sponsored treks in the UK and overseas.

“Then we thought: what can we do next? What the hospital really needs is big chunks of money, so early in 2014 we created our own charity, The Murray Parish Trust.

“We’ve now been asked by PICU to raise £1m for them within two years, the reason being because Southampton General is planning a brand new children’s hospital that will, hopefully, open in 2020. The entire building cost is about £70m so it’s a big, big project.

“At the moment all the paediatric facilities are dotted around all over the site and what we want is our own version of Great Ormond Street Hospital, with everything under the same roof. Still connected to the adult hospital this will be a child-friendly place with its own entrance, its own A&E department, and so on. I’ve seen drawings of what they want to build and it’s fantastic.

“The money The Murray Parish Trust raises will be used for the expansion of the paediatric intensive care unit. There are currently 13 beds and we’d like to increase this to 22. We’d also like to have two, designated, isolation rooms and a lot more equipment. It will make everyone’s jobs down there a hell of a lot easier, and the success and survival rates higher, which is what it’s all about.”

Having already held a hugely successful contemporary art auction at London’s Groucho Club, with donations from artists such as Tracey Emin and the Chapmen Brothers raising over £45,000, the next step is to attract both participants and major sponsors to support a family fun walk next month, closely followed by a celebrity-studded Ball later in the year.

“I should really be running for the hills, it’s a lot of money they’ve asked us to raise - but we want to do the best that we possibly can for Southampton General. And after that, there will be other causes we’ll want to help. We’ll be a charity that helps others to really get things rolling to reach their fundraising potential.”

In the meantime, she’s busy juggling looking after her second daughter, Nell, a lively four-year-old, with filming another series of TV fantasy-drama Atlantis. Nowadays, Sarah’s laidback look is a million miles away from that of Cutting It hairdresser Allie Henshall, the career launching role that still remains her favourite.

“I usually shop in Alresford. It’s got Moda Rosa, which is the go-to place for all ladies in Hampshire and I’m always in there,” she admits guiltily. “We also go to Winchester a lot - it’s such a beautiful place. I love the shops and the Cathedral; at Christmas they have the market and the ice skating, Nell loves all that. When we move to Ovington, we’ll be nearer to Winchester so that will be nice.”

Leaving the garden and its heady scent of climbing roses, I see Pig, the family terrier, wake up. It’s a day for relaxing but I don’t imagine for a minute that Sarah will.

What’s the saying? If you want something done, ask a busy person.