IF Leah Bracknell had any qualms about saying goodbye to Emmerdale two years ago, they have long since faded into the Dales morning mist.
As her alter ego Zoe Tate (vet, lesbian, schizophrenic...), Leah entered the farming drama as a fresh-faced 25-year-old and left 16 years later, still remarkably fresh-faced, possibly thanks to the fact that her own personal life has been rather more settled than poor Zoe's, having established a home in West Yorkshire with her husband, writer Lyall Watson, and their two children, Lily, now 15, and Maya, 11.
Now she is no longer in Emmerdale (both she and Lyall are from south London originally), it could be argued that there is no reason to stay in the area, but staying they are.
"Because my husband is a writer, neither of us is tied, so you think, 'Well, where do we want to go?'," she says. "And, actually, what swung it was that the children are at school here."
Despite her difficulties – confused sexuality, mental health problems and unexpected single motherhood among others – Zoe Tate became a popular soap stalwart and it's testimony to Leah's acting skills that she won praise and accolades for the sensitive way in which she portrayed the many and varied plights. At last year's British Soap Awards, she won the Best Exit category, for a storyline which saw Ms Tate in court for attempted murder. Zoe hasn't been killed off, so she could, in theory, return, but Leah is in no hurry.
"I don't miss it as such, because I was ready to do other things," she says of her departure. "I miss the people and the atmosphere, but I think I'd done everything Zoe could do. It was good to go when she was still popular, to go on a high."
Leaving Emmerdale has given Leah the opportunity to go back into theatre, and she spent a year touring in two plays back to back, travelling from Glasgow to Brighton in Strangers on a Train and in Gaslight, for which she found herself starring alongside Peter Amory, her long-lost brother from Emmerdale. The touring, she admits, was tougher than she'd expected. "It was what I wanted to do, but it was quite difficult being away from home," she says. "I realise now it's not as easy with children."
Yet another pitfall of being a working mother. "You're just about to go on stage and it's like, 'Mum, where's my homework?', but that's life, and that's what makes it fun."
Today, simply dressed in jeans and smock top, Leah Bracknell at 42 is still the exquisite beauty she was when she joined Emmerdale, perhaps even more so now, with the dark, elfin looks that have led to comparisons with Audrey Hepburn.
It's impossible not to muse on where Leah's talents might have taken her so far, had she not discovered the relative security of a long-running soap quite so early in her career.
Not that Leah herself is one to dwell. She has been able to combine motherhood and a high-profile TV career with great success – no mean feat. She's a great doer, with bags of energy, which she has channelled into other non-acting projects, the latest of which involves her passion for making jewellery.
An actor's life inevitably means lots of waiting about, so in her spare time she creates beautiful pieces of jewellery and has become so prolific that she has decided to turn what started as a hobby into a small business. This month she launches her own website through which she will sell the necklaces, bracelets and earrings she designs and makes all by herself.
"I've always made jewellery and customised clothes for myself," she says. "I used to do a lot for friends and family and people kept asking, would I make this or that?"
All limited editions, Leah's jewellery pieces (there are 30 pieces in her collection) are priced 40-150, and made from glass beads, coral, lacquer – anything unusual she can source from all over the world. "I find a lot through the internet, through shops I've got to know, bead conventions – I'm learning a few tricks as I go along, how to bargain and barter.
"I wanted something that was a little bit different, which is why I started in the first place," she says. "I like finding really unusual beads and putting them together – colour is very important. I've found something that is an outlet for my frustrated creativity. It's something that I am in control of. In acting you are always waiting for someone."
A percentage of the profits from the jewellery, Leah adds, will go to Wheatfields Hospice, Leeds, in memory of her friend, Pamela Cavaliere, who died of cancer of the oesophagus in February this year and also to Rethink, which used to be the National Schizophrenia Fellowship.
Leah's daughters have been helping her model the jewellery for the website. "It was a really nice thing for us to do together as a family," she says, although she hopes they don't want to follow her into acting. "I think I've been quite fortunate, but it's also quite difficult. I hope they're more intelligent than that," she says with a smile. "I think it's a good hobby at that age, for confidence and for working with other people. But a lot of people try to get on to the stage school bandwagon and the fame bandwagon and that's not for me. It's not where I came from." For women, Leah realises, it tends to become harder the older you get. "I've not had to think about it ever in my career," says Leah. "And suddenly ... it's like, I could naturally be playing a mother of teenage kids, but I still think they'd cast younger. Say, you had a 45-year-old man, the chances are they might cast a woman alongside much younger than that."
There was never any question that Leah herself would become an actor. She knew it was what she wanted to do from the age of five. "My father was in the film business (he worked on films including Battle of Britain, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and the Carry On series), so I grew up in it," she says. After a childhood in London and Oxford, she spent a year in New Zealand and Fiji and then went to the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art, where she met Lyall. She was cast in Emmerdale within two years of leaving drama school. The rest is history.
It is unusual to stay in a soap so long, and many actors understandably use them to revive their careers or as a springboard to other projects. Leah admires Patsy Kensit, who left Emmerdale after two years for Holby City.
"I have a lot of admiration for her, because she did have a lot to lose, I think. She was going to be criticised
if she didn't do well. But she came in and she worked hard, she made friends with everyone, she got on and she stuck at that job for two years. Again she's really just a mum with two kids."
The workload involved with being a key character in a six-nights-a-week soap left little time for Leah to explore other areas of drama. Not so now. As well as a recent guest appearance in Judge John Deed, there are other TV plans in the pipeline. Leah will be
back on TV in the autumn, although she can't say exactly what at the moment.
"It's not Emmerdale," she says. Not that she entirely rules out the possibility of a return. "I never say never to anything, because you don't know – and also one has to be practical. I'm a working mother – you've got to be sensible."
Check out Leah Bracknell's new jewellery website when it launches this Friday on www.leahbracknellcollection.com.
For more about Leah and her yoga, go to www.leahbracknell.com