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For years, we all thought we knew Fern Britton. Beamed into our living rooms every weekday on This Morning, she exuded a winning combination of motherly warmth and best mate naughtiness.

She always seemed happy and positive but, looking back, what did we really know about the woman behind the sunny smile?

For one of the country's most recognisable faces, she'd actually managed to keep her private life out of the spotlight. And then in 2008, out of nowhere, she published her autobiography, My Story.

The reason for revealing all was purely financial. "I'm very pragmatic about these things. I have children and university's beckoning and I thought, 'There it is, there's the money for that'," says Britton, sitting on a huge maroon sofa in a plush hotel to talk about her new novel, Hidden Treasures.

She looks radiant and relaxed in heels, skinny black trousers and a flowing white top. She's taller than you might expect and the voluptuous figure for which she was once famous is a thing of the past.

Britton was applauded for her transformation, and then berated when it was revealed she'd relied on a gastric band rather than simple dieting and exercise, as had been suggested.

Now she says she couldn't care less what people make of her slimline look. "I've made a decision to say, 'Write whatever you like' because I've just given up. I am who I am, everyone knows that and that's it."

As for the autobiography, she admits it was painful to write at times. "But then I thought if I don't put everything in it, it's not right, so I did the whole lot." Which is why she included being raped on her 21st birthday and her battle with depression.

"People should be talking about depression, like we should be talking about death. We've got to open up to all the big subjects because so many people suffer quietly and it makes life so miserable and there's no need for it," she says.

She's been fine for a long time now, explaining: "My one little tablet every day does me good." But she can recall the dark days. "The air around you is tangibly black. You walk around and think, 'Can't people see this?' and nobody can. If you break your leg, you get lots of sympathy. If you say you're depressed they'll say, 'Pull yourself together'."

She could have chosen the topic as the foundation for her fiction writing but Britton decided to keep things light.

Following the success of her autobiography, her first novel, New Beginnings, was published last year and shot to number three on The Sunday Times hardback bestseller list. Hidden Treasures is her second work of fiction.

"The first book was my ... learning curve," she says carefully. "You know when you make pancakes, the first one's never right and then it gets a bit better."

Hidden Treasures tells the story of forty-something heroine Helen who finally leaves her philandering husband to find an idyllic new life in Cornwall.

"We had a confab about her age because people obviously like to read about somebody who's a bit younger, so we settled on 47," says Britton. "There are an awful lot of us around who've done our first bit of life and looked after family and are now possibly on the second bit." It wasn't difficult to choose Cornwall as the setting. "Very simply I love Cornwall, I always have done," she says.

"I bought my first house there and worked there in various parts of my life and have lots of Cornish friends.

"I've had nothing but happiness in Cornwall. It's comforting and very peaceful. You take your foot off the accelerator and there's no pressure."

She's read excerpts to her husband, the chef Phil Vickery - they have a daughter Winnie (10), and live in Buckinghamshire along with Britton's twin sons Jack and Harry (17), and daughter Grace (14), from her first marriage to TV executive Clive Jones - but she knows he's never going to read it from front to back.

"It's not his kind of thing. He prefers Farmers' Weekly, Tractors Monthly and Pig Farmer Daily," she laughs. But he is supportive. "Totally. Like last year I said to him, 'I really think I must go away to Cornwall on my own to write because I can't concentrate'. He went, 'Go, go, go' and it was a very productive week."

Britton sees a lot of herself in Helen, or perhaps she sees her heroine leading the kind of life she'd like to live. "If I was having a parallel life and didn't have the life I have now, as obviously I'm very happy," she explains. Britton studied stage management at drama school before switching to journalism and soon became the youngest ever national newsreader for the BBC. It's why she can't "do depressing" in her novels.

"I did that for years in newsrooms, interviewing people with very sad lives. Now I choose not to," she says.

During the Nineties, she presented Ready Steady Cook, where she met Vickery, and in 1999 landed the co-presenting role on This Morning, first with John Leslie and later Phillip Schofield.

Then in 2009 she announced live on air she was leaving. "I loved it with all my heart and it took me two years to make that decision.

"But then I was absolutely ready and I haven't looked back," she says.

She doesn't watch the show now though. "I find the day isn't built for me to do that," she says diplomatically.

"I'm writing or I'm doing the shopping or tidying up children's bedrooms, you know, something else."

Today she's regarded as one of the country's foremost broadcasters and woe betide anyone who underestimates her - as Tony Blair can testify following his admission during an interview with her in 2009 that he would have invaded Iraq even without evidence of weapons of mass destruction.

"I'm not Jeremy Paxman, but I believe in just talking to somebody and when people are talking they just say the truth sometimes," she says.

As for a career plan, she insists she's never had one. "I just bumbled about like an idiot. But looking back I do think, 'Good lord, I was so naive'.

"It's the innocence of youth when you think, 'I'll go and work in television now' and you go and get a job."

Now she's enjoying her new vocation as a novelist. Her third novel is under way, while a fourth is due for publication in 2014.

"I see writing as a gift, something that's come out of the blue that I could never have imagined," says Britton.

"Like 10 years ago I could never have imagined I could cycle 100 miles a day and I can," she says, referencing her rides in aid of the Genesis Research Trust.

"And five years ago, I wouldn't have thought I had the strength to sit down and write 100,000 words but I did."

Writing makes her happy, she says. "It might not be Jane Austen, but it is total escapism."