After Ashdown: Still a hero to Tinkers Bubble folk

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IN A damp wood a mile or two up the valley from Paddy Ashdown's house, Bob Baehr was coppicing hazel trees. "Yes, I'll be sorry to him go," said Mr Baehr, offering a mug of home-pressed apple juice. "I think he is a popular person - people around here like him."

The alternative community at Tinkers Bubble, near Norton sub Hamdon in Somerset, has good reason to like Paddy too. When they sought planning permission to build naturally resourced homes on the 40-acre site they bought six years ago, Mr Ashdown was a key supporter. He may not have been as vocal as they would have liked during the row that ran for years, but he made clear he could see nothing wrong with an alternative community living off the land - even if it was in his own back yard. "The other Christmas he came up here with a bottle of wine for us," said Mr Baehr. "He walked up from his house on the Christmas morning. He never slagged us off and was always friendly. The impression he gives is of a straight- up guy. He talks sense. People like that about him."

These are opinions you hear often in Yeovil when you ask about Paddy Ashdown. He was in his late 30s when he took over as their Liberal prospective parliamentary candidate, holding surgeries and writing to government departments and other institutions when he believed one of his "constituents" had been wronged.

This boundless enthusiasm attracted many people. Others liked his action-man image. In 1983 he won what was a safe Tory seat for the Liberals - a seat he holds with a majority of 11,403. "He is going to be very difficult to replace as the MP," said Roger Baker, mayor of Yeovil. "He has worked very hard in the constituency. He has found it more difficult because he's been the leader . . . but he's still done a lot."

Baroness Miller of Chil-thorne Domer, a Liberal Democrat peer and former leader of the district council, said: "The constituency is going to be really sad."

Mr Ashdown's experiences with Yeovil have not all been good. In 1996 his car was fire-bombed outside his house. A year earlier he was attacked by a man with a knife while he was walking the town with a vicar, assessing levels of racism.