Hidden in the rolling green hills 45 miles southwest of London, this tiny hamlet would be difficult to find even if someone hadn't recently stolen all the nearby road signs as souvenirs.
But then, few people bothered to look for Dummer before 26-year-old Sarah Ferguson put it on the map. Since her engagement four months ago to 26-year-old Prince Andrew, Queen Elizabeth's second son, Dummer's narrow main (and only) road has become clogged with tourists and journalists seeking insight into the freckle-faced, slightly chunky redhead who tomorrow will become Britain's newest princess.
And there is some small insight to be found. Dummer is a sort of mini-Middleburg, Va., the ancestral or acquired home of gentlemen farmers who play polo and hunt foxes in the high-priced countryside surrounding their equally pricey manor houses. In the village itself, the quaint, thatched-roof cottages and small general store take care of the needs of the farmhands and domestic workers who serve them, as well as those of an increasing number of commuters to London and the nearby city of Basingstoke.
Sarah Ferguson comes from the manor house side of Dummer's deep social divide. From 1968, when she was 9 years old and her father inherited Dummer Downs estate, until she moved to London in her late teens to attend secretarial school, "Fergie," as she now is known to millions of royals-watchers in Britain and around the world, rode her ponies through the Hampshire hills and watched her male relatives play polo.
The Ferguson family is apparently well off, and also is linked, albeit by thinning blood, to royalty. Fergie and Andrew can trace their family trees back 400 years to a common trunk in King James I, and even more recently through the fourth duke of Devonshire.
Either way you look at her -- as a daughter of the debutante-cum-horsy set, or as one of the scores of sleek young men and women who form the backbone of the royal social set dominated by those more closely related to the current monarch -- Fergie might have had the makings of a dull woman and a fairly uninspiring princess.
Yet during four months under intense public scrutiny, she has emerged as friendly, self-assured, bright and engagingly human. The aristocratic and remote Diana, princess of Wales, may be the principal royal object of adulation these days, but Fergie is someone who seems to inspire in her countrymen the same kind of cozy warmth as does Queen Elizabeth herself.
Diana may take a better picture, but Fergie is more fun.
Since she was transformed from an upper-middle-class working girl with good connections to a princess-designate, Sarah Ferguson has been besieged at every step by photographers, reporters and less professional gawkers. She has never been known not to smile for the cameras and has never been reported to display irritation at the invasion of her privacy. Sometimes she stops to chat or exchange a joke with working hacks and passers-by.
Her self-assurance seems friendly and natural, rather than self-important, and her bouncy exuberance appears to have transferred itself to public anticipation over tomorrow's big event.
On live television here and through satellite hookups around the world, an estimated 300 million people are expected to watch her walk up the aisle. It may not be as big an occasion as the 1981 wedding of Diana and Charles, Andrew's elder brother and heir to the throne, but the British -- and apparently much of the rest of the world -- love any excuse for a ceremony, the more royal the better.
Once her engagement was announced, Fergie quickly was drawn into the fold of the royal household, from which only form and no substance is revealed. Few people actually know what the royals think about, do or say in private, and those few don't talk about it. So, except for dutiful coverage of the royal presence at hospital dedications and garden parties, the press must feed the voracious public appetite for information with endless accounts of what they look like.
Since Britain's attention has to a large extent focused on Fergie's derrie re -- or bum, as they say here -- it is perhaps best to deal with the issue and be done with it.
When her wax double was unveiled here Thursday at Madame Tussaud's, an enterprising photographer jumped across the barriers and quickly wrapped a measuring tape around its hips. The famous wax figures are supposed to be made to exact measurements, and the media waited breathlessly for confirmation on a subject of intense public speculation.
"Forty-two inches," the photographer shouted. He apparently didn't have the nerve to wrap the tape around Fergie's top, a subject of similarly widespread interest.
According to her father, although she doesn't show it, Fergie gets upset when she sees her vital statistics splashed across the front pages. Gossip columnists, hairdressers and fashion experts have relentlessly examined every visible aspect of her physical presence, and the portrait in some cases has not been a flattering one.
Dress size: 14 (an American 12). Weight: 140 pounds (probably an underestimation). Height: 5 feet 7 inches. Hair: Beautifully "titian-colored," healthy, but old-fashioned and needs to be cut. Eyes: Blue-gray. Fashion sense: Frumpy.
Fergie says she frequently diets, often without success. The royal romance was sparked last year in the royal luncheon tent at Ascot, where the playful prince, she later disclosed, was trying to force her to eat profiteroles -- chocolate-stuffed pastry -- "which I didn't want at all. I was meant to be on a diet."
Yet her frumpiness and foibles if anything have greatly enchanted a British public that seems to have grown weary of worrying about whether Diana is too thin. Described as "bonny rather than beautiful," Fergie has the homespun good looks every mother loves, and the weight problems with which many women sympathize.
The question of whether Fergie should follow the example of Diana -- whose own eyebrow-sweeping bangs and puppy fat at the time of her engagement caused similar discussion, and rapidly disappeared into rail-thin elegance after her marriage -- has been long debated.
The consensus seems to be that "our Fergie" should stay pretty much as she is, with perhaps just a little tightening around the backside. "Fergie is not fat," assured one local profile. "She's a bit overweight. But why should a lovely redhead be expected to conform to a stereotype? She's got big bones, a big bosom and a big smile. Would less of everything make her prettier?"
The women's page of a leading tabloid trumpeted its relief in a headline: "Big Girls Back in Fashion."
According to their parents, Fergie and Andrew first met at about age 3, beside the polo field. "Doesn't everybody?" her mother, Susan, asked an interviewer. Polo has been a common thread through their lives. Her father, retired army major Ronald Ferguson, plays with Andrew's father, Prince Philip and is polo manager for Prince Charles. Susan left home, divorcing Ferguson when Fergie was 14, to marry Argentine professional polo player Hector Barrantes.
But her father says that Fergie, while an adequate horsewoman, is not obsessed with riding, and it is reported that she would rather be swimming. Her close friendship with Princess Diana is said to have blossomed when the two got together out of boredom while they sat beside a grassy field watching various men in their lives ride back and forth swinging sticks.
Before the departure of her mother from the family home, Fergie's life was without major crisis. Born at a London nursing home on Oct. 15, 1959, she was the second of the Fergusons' two children. Her sister Jane, two years older and now married to an Australian farmer, has their mother's dark, aquiline beauty, while Fergie looks more like her father but was said from an early age to be "jolly and kind."
Early family photographs show Sarah as a cute, chubby child with a mass of bright red curls and the same toothy smile she so willingly dispenses today. From the time she could walk, her playmates were drawn from those in and around royalty.
Ronald Ferguson had followed in the steps of his own father and grandfather, joining a Life Guards army regiment after graduating from Sandhurst. The regiment is prominent in Britain's ceremonial life, and the squadron Ferguson commanded took a turn at providing the "Sovereign's Escort of Household Cavalry." It was during that period that Prince Philip invited Maj. Ferguson to play on his polo team on the grounds of the Great Park at Windsor Castle.
Fergie's first schooling was as a day student at a coeducational establishment in Basingstoke. According to the Buckingham Palace-approved Royal Wedding Souvenir Program, staff at the school recall her as a "courageous, bubbly and outgoing little girl."
Later, Fergie became a weekly boarder at Hurst Lodge School in Ascot. There, the official biography states, she "excelled at swimming and tennis, and rather less so at academic achievement." It notes she is particularly remembered for "jolly dormitory japes," and teachers and former fellow students there speak of her fondness for pranks such as sliding down the broad stairway on down-filled comforters and leading food fights with dinner rolls in the dining hall. In evidence of her popularity and leadership among her peers, she was appointed "head girl."
Unlike many of her social set, Fergie decided after graduation from the British equivalent of high school to attend a secretarial college in London. There she learned shorthand, typing and bookkeeping. Her entrance interview card described her as a "bright, bouncy redhead. She's a bit slapdash, but has initiative and personality which she will use to her advantage when she gets older. She accepts responsibility happily."
Her courses complete, she started work at a Covent Garden art gallery, and then moved to two public relations firms before ending up at the Swiss-based graphics firm where she still is officially employed.
By all accounts, the family was greatly relieved when the rambunctious Andrew, whose youthful flings with girls with names like Katie and Koo were severely frowned upon, chose someone as acceptable as Fergie. Nevertheless, along the way, Fergie acquired some worldly experience with men. While not disqualifying her for consideration for a royal marriage, that experience, along with her broken family, is seen as having provided her with the easy sophistication she has displayed since the engagement. She is said to be close to both her mother, who lives in Buenos Aires, and her stepmother, with whom Ronald Ferguson started a new family that now includes three young children.
Her first serious boyfriend was Kim Smith-Bingham, now 29 and a married and successful stockbroker. When they met, however, Smith-Bingham was a self-described "ski bum" at the Swiss resort of Verbier. It was through him that Fergie in 1982 met her second, and much more serious love, a rich widower 22 years her senior. Motor racing manager Paddy McNally was well known for the nightly "salon" at his expensive Verbier chalet.
For three years, Fergie was McNally's principal companion, if not his only one. It was he who gave her the gold watch she wears in her official engagement photographs, and the golden chain with the letters "G.B." (meaning unknown but much speculated upon) that until a few months ago she still wore around her neck.
While the two never actually lived together, their relationship was one of glamorous European trips, frequent skiing holidays and numerous occasions where Fergie was to be seen anxiously waiting for McNally beside a Grand Prix racing strip. Fergie was said to be almost a mother to McNally's two young sons.
According to widely quoted friends, their relationship ended early last summer when Fergie gave him an ultimatum and McNally, while indicating his fondness, confirmed that he had no intention of marrying her.
When Fergie and Andrew began their romance, both were on the rebound -- she from McNally, and he from starlet Koo Stark, notorious for her soft-porn films.
At Diana's matchmaking suggestion in June of last year, Fergie was added to the guest list for the informal house party the queen traditionally hosts at Windsor Castle during the week of Royal Ascot. "We were made to sit next to each other," Andrew said in their engagement-day interview last March. He tried to make her eat the chocolate. She was not amused.
"It was at Ascot, as it were, that the whole thing took off," Andrew said. "But it wasn't Ascot, as such, when we realized that there was anything in it. It was later on."
After Ascot, Andrew, a naval lieutenant, went back to sea duty, and Fergie went back to what the wedding program profile calls her "bachelor girl life," sharing an apartment with another young woman in newly gentrified Clapham, in south London. But then the flowers began to arrive from Andrew.
"The temperature was seen to have risen," the profile says, "when Miss Ferguson was invited, in the early days of 1986, to be the royal family's guest during their regular New Year's holiday at Sandringham." Later, Fergie and Andrew were spotted holding hands in public.
Last February, Fergie showed up with Diana for an official tour of Andrew's ship, the HMS Brazen, docked at the time in the Thames River. Ten days later, the Brazen sailed, and Fergie went skiing in Klosters with Diana and Charles, where she was dogged by curious reporters and cameramen who repeatedly asked if there were marriage plans with Andrew.
"Cor blimey, darling, you must be joking," she shouted at her pursuers in a line Britons laughingly identified as an imitation of a well-known British television soap opera character.
But the deed was about to be done. It was shortly afterward that Fergie and Andrew secretly rendezvoused in Floors Castle in Scotland, the home of his longstanding friends, the young duke and duchess of Roxburghe. He got down on his knees to pop the question. Fergie, she later said, told him to sleep on it. "When you wake up tomorrow morning, you can tell me it is all a huge joke."
In their engagement-day interview, Andrew said he liked her red hair. "And the good looks," she prompted from the sofa beside him.
Asked the same question, Fergie rolled her eyes and grinned and said, "Wit? Charm?" The two are said to be much alike -- fun-loving, easygoing and bored with pomp.
Although she has said that she intends to keep her job after marriage, the prospect is viewed as unlikely. Already, Fergie has been thrust into near-constant royal functions at the side of her fiance' and the queen. Soon after her engagement, she moved out of the Clapham apartment and into Buckingham Palace, where until her marriage she reportedly has a separate room near Andrew's apartments.
Andrew's chosen career as a naval officer will keep him away for substantial periods, and her own "job" of near-daily public appearances as a member of the royal family -- visiting orphanages and army troops, showing up at official functions and celebrity events -- is expected to dominate much of her time after the wedding. While they will be a bit down the royal line of duty, behind Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother and Charles and Diana, that the public seems so fond of the new royal couple, and particularly of Fergie, ensures they will be much in demand