Canal crime struck hard - the bastards even took her bickies - but Prunella Scales, new president of the Council for the Protection of Rural England, just floated on. By Nicholas Roe
If there's a God of Fairness he doesn't hang out much on the Oxford Canal. Or if He does He certainly doesn't fancy Prunella Scales. Here's the actress most of us still know best as Sybil Fawlty, standing on a drizzly tow-path in the Oxfordshire village of Lower Heyford. She's smiling, trying to put a brave face on something rotten. "Hello," she says, offering a hand. "Prunella Scales. I'm afraid that..." some plonker has just burgled her.

Ms Scales has just been elected president of the Council for the Protection of Rural England, the CPRE - a surprise, seeing that she has lived in London since she was 17, hates going for walks, and is best known for playing a nail-varnishing bissom who thinks "country" is where you play golf.

But so committed to her new post is Ms Scales that she has agreed to an interview in her narrow boat, a reserve of peace, on a rare day off with her husband, actor Timothy West, and on her birthday (her 65th, though she looks a decade younger).

Now, overnight, some oaf has smashed a window of their lovely craft - named after their accountant - scattered glass, bent a frame and stolen a most peculiar range of goods: a few good wines, a single beige cushion, odd items of Timothy's clothes and other bits, the absence of which we shall discover later as we take the boat up the Oxford Canal in lashing storms. "Bugger!" she cries at one point. "The bastard's nicked the bickies."

So, a disaster. Yet also a chance to observe that Ms Scales is clearly a bit of a grafter. She tapes up the window, cooks a chicken lunch, does an interview, runs about at various locks we come to in a four-hour journey, and generally plays Cap'n Birdseye.

The CPRE is a worthy organisation. Set up in 1926 to "preserve" (nowadays "protect") the English countryside, it is responsible for much research and many authoritative statements. The organisation had a campaigning hand in the establishment of the green belt system, and national parks; in recent times it has won new curbs on out-of-town shopping centres and forced the government to abandon plans to scrap controls on outdoor advertising. Most recently it has produced a "Contract for the Countryside", dumping into a bemused public lap a range of suggested policies embracing transport, housing and that reviled environmental touchstone, the Common Agricultural Policy. All rather difficult stuff.

Asking Prunella Scales to head this august body - taking over from the mildly imposing Jonathan Dimbleby who has done his five-year stint - sounds chancy. So why risk it? "We should be communicating our message to a wider audience," says director Fiona Reynolds. "People see stories about CPRE and register the issues, not the CPRE. We want to increase membership. We have 45,000 which is good, but we should have more. It would give us more clout. Prunella really does care about the countryside and she is held in great affection by the nation." It seems she must walk a social tightrope between intellectual respectability and good old sexy public appeal. Some job.

Now look at her. We're halfway between Lower Heyford and the tiny village of Aynho, at a very deep lock. Husband Timothy is at the helm. I'm on the gates. Ms Scales is down below making China tea. Wham! No blame, but somehow the front of the boat comes into very sharp contact with the lock gates.

"Ooh!" Ms Scales' cry pierces the peace. Her head pops up. "That's a pot of China tea gone," she snaps. "I don't know what Tim was thinking of..." Then she disappears again, to return moments later with a mop and bucket which she rinses out pointedly into the foaming waters of the lock while on-lookers goggle. In France, maybe, or America, this kind of scene could destroy an image. Here, it bucks us up no end: our Pru is one of us.

While the rain lashes down on Timothy we sit below sipping very strong China tea with chunks of lemon in because she's forgotten the milk. She's talking about life and the countryside. But it's tricky talking to Ms Scales. She'll say, "This boat is perfect for us. Instant countryside. Second homes aren't for us. I always said if I lived in the country I would want to do it properly, bottling jam and - " Then she'll suddenly jump up and close a door or fetch a plate. Now she'll come back, smile brilliantly and say, "Now, where were we?"

Also she's funny. When I spot a crocheted mat I ask if it's one of hers. Gale of laughter. "I've just finished my second counterpane," she says. "The first took 10 years and was called `Waiting For The Children Outside The Dentist's'; the second is `Very Small Parts In Films'." (She has two grown-up sons).

She's wary of making rural policy pronouncements fearing that, as a new girl, she might put her foot in it. On the subject of fame, however, she is transparent: "The thing I simply hate about my job is any `celeb' coverage. I can't bear the idea or concept of being a `celeb'. I don't like being recognised. Shopping, I often wear glasses and a scarf."

But isn't CPRE counting on her celebrity to boost membership? "Yes, I'm quite well known, probably because I was lucky enough to be in a successful TV series 20 years ago, and if I can use that for something I believe in, that's a plus."

There aren't many actresses who would suggest that their fame was based on a 20-year-old performance - and it's only partly true: playing the Queen in Alan Bennett's A Question of Attrition was one of many roles that have subsequently boosted her reputation. Anyway, she's happy plundering fame for the CPRE; in fact has already told members in the field to get in touch when she's touring so they can drum up publicity. But the presidency is for five years, which takes commitment. Where does urban Sybil leave off and Prunella take over?

You can spot the join precisely. As a child she grew up partly in a Surrey village, then was evacuated to various rural spots, most notably north Devon where she went to a village school. Then came a boarding school in the Lake District and finally another Surrey village. Here's the join. At 17 she started at drama school in the Old Vic Theatre in London. In her first term she used to walk through the woods, leave her gumboots behind the bar of a pub near Dorking North station, and commute. By the second term she had digs in Dulwich. City life had grabbed her, yet those early marks remain.

She and Timothy have taken their boat down almost all the inland waterways of England in the past 20 years and when she says, "I think protecting rural England is more important than any work I do as an actress", it doesn't sound twee, though she struggles to explain exactly why the countryside matters (you try it): "I want it to be there. Help. Why do I?

"I'm afraid it must be instinctive in me. I grew up in the countryside and love it. I want there to be a countryside for my grandchildren with all the flora and fauna I knew when I was small. And it seems that enough people agree for me to believe we may have a point."

She hates pollution and is scared of nuclear power. All good stuff. But one thing glares through, from a preference for canals over rivers ("Rivers are yachting caps; canals are woolly hats") to her insistence on using public transport: our Pru is very, very egalitarian. "What I like so much about CPRE," she says, "is that they are not trying to keep the countryside as a reserve for people who can afford to go there; they are equally concerned about the inner cities and the fact that people should be able to get into the countryside and enjoy it."

She signed up two new members for CPRE while I was there, ordinary folk she met on the canal bank. Expect many more.