The Constant Gardener - By Karen Anne Overton
Whether tending to his roses or matters of the heart and soul, TV presenter, horticulturalist and novelist Alan Titchmarsh OBE knows that the secret to success is always the same: attention, patience and lots and lots of love.
Alan Titchmarsh is prolific. This may be surprising to some who know him primarily as that “guy who gardens on television”, but horticulture, whilst considered his “first love”, is only one of his many talents utilised in a diverse and expansive career. Best known for his work on Ground Force, which saw him and fellow presenters – Charlie Dimmock and Tommy Walsh – perform miracle makeovers on unsuspecting participants’ gardens, he has been a radio presenter, hosted numerous TV shows, from Songs of Praise to the Antiques Roadshow, and has written several autobiographies, guides to gardening and novels. The latest of which – Mr Gandy’s Grand Tour (Hodder & Stoughton) – has just been released.
“I always love it when people say ‘gardener, writer, broadcaster, novelist’ and I always think ‘ooh yes, well I guess I am’. This is my tenth novel, so I am now a novelist,” says the 67-year-old excitedly. “But I’m a gardener who was allowed to do other things, that’s how I see myself. I was allowed to play with the grown-ups – on telly with my chat show [The Alan Titchmarsh Show], or on-stage in the West End with The Wind in the Willows [playing Kenneth Grahame] for a few months. Presenting Last Night of the Proms, and writing novels and telling stories, all completely diverse disciplines, and they’re all a part of me. I just thank my lucky stars that I’ve been allowed to do so many different things.”
In Mr Gandy’s Grand Tour, Titchmarsh takes the opportunity to explore a character who hasn’t had a plethora of opportunities. In fact, Timothy Gandy is a man who has felt rather trapped and frustrated in his life – a tedious job, a stagnant marriage – but following his sudden emancipation from both, he decides, aged 55, to go on a great adventure. “He feels what he wants to do more than anything is to go on The Grand Tour of Europe like they used to do back in the 18th century. These scions of the aristocracy would travel around and see the cultural sites, and it would take a couple of years. He doesn’t want to do that, but he wants to visit Europe and do Paris, Rome, Florence and Venice,” explains Titchmarsh. “But it throws up rather more than he imagines, so from my point of view it was about exploring someone who’s a little later on in life, as most of my characters are, and how it affected him and what he does about it.”
In his typically warm and chatty style, Titchmarsh discusses the pastime of penning novels as though it were a hobby he chanced upon one day and fancied having a go at. He reveals how he creates characters but doesn’t necessarily plan out the plots and follows them to their natural conclusion, how he chose Mr Gandy’s destinations based on where he himself had been in order to give the book a realistic texture and atmosphere, and his desire to give his reader a satisfactory and conclusive ending. But when pushed on what he wants his readers to feel after reading his novels, a more philosophical side of him emerges, and one that ties the thread between Alan Titchmarsh the nurturing gardener and Titchmarsh the inquisitive novelist; constantly striving to grow and discover.
“What my novels do, I hope, is explore human nature and put ordinary people in extraordinary situations and see how they react,” he says thoughtfully. “They are all, as indeed we all are in life, looking for something – the lucky ones are the ones who find it and know when they have found it, others don’t see it sometimes when it’s staring [them] in the face, and need to go on questing for it ...”
So is there a similar sense of satisfaction in helping his literary characters achieve their dreams, with the joy and fulfilment he felt surprising people with the incredible gardens he created on shows like Ground Force? “I think you do always have your lead characters’ interests at heart, even if they don’t work out, and certainly when I was doing people’s gardens, yes, I wanted to transform their lives,” considers Titchmarsh. “With Love Your Garden [a garden transformation programme now in its sixth series], I’m making over gardens for people whose lives will be … considerably improved by an outdoor space. My goal is to, quite simply, change their lives. It’s not always [easy] to do, but that’s the bottom line, I want their lives to improve.”
The celebrity gardener is also patron of several charities which aim to improve the quality of life of others through horticulture. Like Seeds for Africa which encourages sustainable vegetable gardening across 25 African countries, providing agricultural equipment and technical expertise. He is also trustee of his own charity, Gardens for Schools, which is a scheme run through the Royal Horticulture Society that has helped over 28,000 schools and communities plan green spaces, rewarding blossoming projects with vouchers for tools, bulbs and seeds. His philanthropic efforts would suggest a determination to share that same passion for soil that has spurred him on so feverishly over the years, leaving no child behind.
The children are vital to the future
“It is vital that we engage children in gardening while they are young,” says Titchmarsh. “They are the future custodians of our planet and if you can inspire them at primary school age, that connection with the earth and joy will stay with them for life. Plus, once they get out there and start getting involved, they just love it!”
Interestingly, Titchmarsh’s assurance, genuine warmth and ability to so fluently articulate his musings on the future of humanity are not inherent; in fact, he has come a long way from the shy and frustrated young man who dropped out of school at 15. Born in West Riding, Yorkshire to a textile worker mother and plumber father, he was not expected to achieve anything spectacular, and has spoken, both in person and in his autobiographies about how his parents considered him to be “not that bright”. He has said that it was a “revelation” when, as an adult, he realised he could “do things”, and over his seven decades he has worked hard to overcome these feelings of frustration and a habit of becoming defensive when criticised.
One wonders if his burgeoning confidence was rooted in his love of gardening, which he discovered when very young. “I started when I was about nine or ten in the back garden. I made a little greenhouse, and I just always liked all parts of nature, whether it was animals like frogs, toads and insects, it’s always been part of me,” he reveals. “The garden is the nearest bit of natural history to use, so I sowed seeds and they came up, and when [I had] a bit of success in something, it emboldened me to take cuttings and get roots on them and things like that. I always felt comfortable in a garden, and I still do.”
People have long talked about the great outdoors and its many restorative qualities, but it becomes clear that tending to his plants provides a kind of therapy for Titchmarsh, and also taught him great patience: “There are great frustrations in gardening, but it is (no pun intended) a grounding kind of pursuit. It reminds you what reality is all about, and it’s about things that grow and our responsibility for the landscape on whatever scale that might be. It’s not an onerous responsibility, it’s a delight to be involved with it.”
Initially taking up an apprenticeship with Ilkley Council, he then studied horticulture at both Shipley Art and Technology Institute and Hertfordshire College, before earning a diploma in the subject at the prestigious Botanic Gardens in Kew. For a while he stayed at Kew, tending to its many botanical spaces and then going on to train others in the craft. This is where the story may have ended, were it not for his decision around 1974 to marry his love of prose and plants to become a gardening journalist. This eventually would lead to his first television appearance on long-running BBC show, Nationwide, where he soon became the resident horticulture expert, and subsequent career as a presenter.
A wide and varied career
During his career he has hosted a dizzying and diverse array of television, from reality talent show Popstar to Operastar, alongside musician Myleene Klass, to a documentary on Her Majesty titled Elizabeth: Queen, Wife, Mother, and several stints on Songs of Praise. His love of classical music, his fascination with British history, and what is probably his most ingrained, but least-known devotion, his Christianity.
“I’m not remotely evangelical. I grew up in a classic low-church family where we just went to church on a Sunday, and I had that rebellious period in my late teens and 20s where I didn’t really go much, but it’s always been there. It’s always been something I’ve based my life on, but very quietly. It’s not something I particularly talk about, but yes, I have got a strong faith, and it helps me a lot,” says the flower enthusiast, who has written about the subject, revealing in the past that his religion has always been a great comfort to him – but also remarked that whilst being an atheist is deemed “sexy”, declaring your Christianity is not. Of course, “being sexy” is not something Titchmarsh has to worry about, especially considering the revelation on the comedy panel show, Would I Lie to You? that his Madame Tussauds’ waxwork had to be cleaned twice a week to remove lipstick smudges from his amorous female fans!
In spite of his attempts to play down his faith, he has certainly never shied away from the topic; in fact, he is known for singing it from the rooftops. Aside from Songs of Praise, he is also known to partake in the odd bout of bellringing and rang a quarter peal in Holybourne, Hampshire, to celebrate the marriage of William and Kate, and was a choirboy as a child. In fact, it is his love of music that brought him his wife of over 40 years, Alison, whom he met through an operatic society, and has two grown-up children with – Polly, 37, and Camilla, 35.
Titchmarsh talks about all his pursuits with great brevity. That’s not to say he lacks enthusiasm, quite the opposite, but there is a focus on the holy – almost meditative – qualities of both gardening and writing. Patience is required and a sense of letting go of what may be, and being prepared to start over. They are also, as any writer will tell you, quite lonely endeavours. “They are, for the most part, both solitary. You can garden with somebody else if you want, but most gardeners find themselves in their particular corner doing stuff on their own. It keeps me sane, if you like, that connection with the earth, and that for me is reality,” says Titchmarsh.
“A friend of mine said my garden was a wonderful escape, and I said yes, but it’s an escape to reality. This is real. When I wake up it’ll still be there and it;ll be growing, God willing, long after I’ve gone. I like that kind of permanence, that continuity – it gives me a sense of achievement having created something, but also a kind of inner peace.”