The life and times of Alan Titchmarsh
- Credit: Alamy Stock Photo
Alan Titchmarsh heads to Suffolk in September for a fundraising lunch in support of Ormiston Families. Don't expect him to talk about nothing but gardening...
Friday, 11am and Alan Titchmarsh has already completed one important public engagement this morning. He's been out and about in his role as a deputy lieutenant for the county of Hampshire, where he lives, meeting staff and pupils at a local school to thank them for keeping going throughout the pandemic. He's barely had time to change out of his uniform before our chat.
Communication - it's the part of the job he most enjoys. But which job are we talking about? The nation's favourite gardener is so many things these days, with a CV that includes television presenter, chat show host, broadcaster, author, novelist, poet and royal observer. In September he'll draw on all that experience when he comes to Suffolk for an exclusive fundraiser lunch in support of East Anglian charity Ormiston Families. He's looking forward to meeting his audience and catching up with great friend and fellow gardener Lady Xa Tollemache, president of the charity. Alan knows her well, and her work in creating Helmingham Hall's beautiful gardens.
He's familiar with Ormiston, which supports children and families with a range of services, particularly those affected by the imprisonment or offending behaviour of a relative. "It's tremendously worthwhile, helping people whose lives have been affected by other members of their family who’ve been unfortunate or taken a wrong turning," says Alan. "Everybody deserves a second chance, particularly if it’s to support families who find themselves in difficulties. It shows enormous generosity of spirit and I think that’s about the most important thing in life."
The lunch, he says, will be a fun, light-hearted event. "A bit of information, hopefully a few hours' entertainment, predicated on my life and times and what I’ve learned." His life and times have certainly been full and varied, which is how he likes it. Born in Ilkley, Yorkshire, in 1949, he famously left school at 15 with one O-level in art and went to work as an apprentice gardener with Ilkley Council. He left that when he was 18 to study for a City and Guilds in horticulture and ended up at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew where he got his diploma.
But as well as plants, Alan was interested in literature and writing and in 1974 left Kew to pursue a career in gardening journalism. By 1976, he had written and published his first gardening book. Television came along - he was the gardening expert for the long-running BBC show Nationwide, and from 1983-2013 presented the Chelsea Flower Show for the BBC.
In 1996 he took over as host of Gardeners' World, breaking ground by filming the show in his own garden. The age of the celebrity TV gardener was well and truly here. Garden makeover show Ground Force began in 1997, which Alan presented with Charlie Dimmock and Tommy Walsh, then How To Be A Gardener and, since 2011, Love Your Garden.
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Out of the garden, Alan has presented Songs of Praise, made documentaries, been the voice of a CBeebies character, hosted his own chat show for seven years, presented The Queen's Garden for ITV, in which he got exclusive access to the royal gardens at Buckingham Palace for a year, and Secrets of the National Trust for Channel 5. Oh, and there's radio - a gardening show with Gloria Hunniford and Classic FM every Saturday morning. With his relaxed, affable style, there is, it seems, no limit to what he can turn his hand to. Did he imagine it would turn out this way, I wonder?
"If you're asking 'did you know when you became an apprentice gardener that that was the way to get your own chat show?' - yeah, absolutely it was a career plan!" he jests. "No, not all. I’ve always followed a path that I thought would be interesting. I only ever wanted to be a gardener – I still garden. I love growing things, I love beautifying the landscape – and the other things have grown out of it. I was always interested in engaging people in whatever my passion was. The communicating bit I’ve always enjoyed, even when I was an apprentice, doing talks and things like that."
While his natural talent for engaging with people has brought him myriad opportunities, he says he hasn't always been totally confident about doing them. "You do need enablers who spot in you perhaps things you don’t spot yourself. I’ve been very lucky to meet a lot of people along the way who’ve said 'have you ever thought about doing whatever?' I don’t always do it, but when I do I can push myself to do things that I might have thought 'I’m not sure I can do that' - and I’ve really enjoyed it. One day I’ll be rumbled."
Nevertheless, a 'have a go' attitude can take you a long way. Take writing novels (11 of them), for example. "I just thought, I wonder if I could," he says. Which is the real Alan Titchmarsh, I wonder, the achievement he's most proud of? "Oh, I don’t know that I’m proud of anything. I’m grateful that I’ve had the opportunity to do them all, and I like variety.
"I’m a gardener who’s been allowed to do other things. I can grow plants - that’s the skill I have - but I can also write about them. I’ve always enjoyed words, right from being young. I’m a gardener first and foremost, but it’s a bit like asking which is your favourite child – well, they’re all your favourites."
There are quiet days, he says, when he's on his own, in silence, tapping away on a computer at his latest project. Then there are the times when he's filming Love Your Garden. "Recently we were creating a garden in Sheffield for a family whose lives have been turned round by the fact they can now get out there and have a bit of fun together. I enjoy the sociability of television and radio and the solitude of writing. The two complement each other – it's great."
The Queen's Platinum Jubilee holiday weekend was certainly sociable and busy. Alan popped up on television throughout, sharing his experience of Trooping the Colour, standing in front of Buckingham Palace explaining the significance of the astonishing Tree of Trees, joining the line-up of BBC commentators, and waving from the open top of a London bus as the Platinum Jubilee pageant made its way down The Mall. "A gathering of the great and good," he quips, "everybody you’ve ever seen on TV, it seemed to me.” He was in the 1960s bus with, among others, Tony Blackburn, Basil Brush, and Blue Peter's Peter Purves and Valerie Singleton. He also broadcast his Saturday morning Classic FM show live from outside Buckingham Palace.
“It was a special weekend - the atmosphere in town was wonderful," he says. "The Queen said 'we will meet again' and we all did. There was a great feeling of relief and celebration and thankfulness about it.” You get the impression, from his association over the years, that the monarchy matters to him. There are the books, Elizabeth: Her Life, Our Times, and
The Queen's House; and the documentaries, Elizabeth: Queen, Wife, Mother, Prince Philip: 70 Years of Service, The Queen's Garden, Highgrove: Alan Meets Prince Charles. While the plumber's son from Yorkshire might not have a lot in common with the heir to the throne, they are the same age, give or take a few months and he's grown up with this royal family. “The vast majority of us, 70 and under, only know the Queen,” he remarks.
He's certainly an ardent supporter of the Queen’s Green Canopy project, a unique tree planting initiative which invites people from across the UK to plant a tree for the Jubilee. Like Suffolk, his county of Hampshire has a tree-planting programme underway. The Tree of Trees sculpture outside Buckingham Palace, designed by Thomas Heatherwick, was made up of 350 British native saplings in aluminium pots which were later donated to selected community groups and people. It provided an important focal point for the campaign over the jubilee weekend.
It's about redressing the balance, he says. "Making sure we appreciate what trees give us, the wildlife they support, the cleansing of the atmosphere, the role they play. It’s something the Queen’s really pleased to put her name to.” The environment is enormously important to him. “That’s what gardening is – it's the sharp end of conservation." Many people are worried about global warming and climate change, he believes, but feel powerless to do anything that will effect change.
"But gardening is all about wildlife and conservation. It’s our immediate piece of landscape, our immediate countryside. Even in towns, it's your chance to make a difference." Plant, he says, and insects will come, particularly bees and butterflies. "They’re great opportunists - give them a chance and they’ll be there. Being a gardener is a way to keep in touch with nature.”
Another way is to watch and pick up tips from celebrity TV gardeners, of course. I venture to suggest they're now as plentiful as celebrity chefs but, says Alan, it's impossible to have too many. "Some of their styles will appeal to you, some won’t be to your taste. The great thing about having so many gardeners on the box or on the radio is you can find somebody that you get on with, which is never a bad thing. I think variety is good. The more people who join the cause the better."
And that cause is spreading the word about the benefits of gardens, how necessary they are to a life well lived, a fact well demonstrated during Covid. Alan hopes that having discovered gardening we stick at it. "People have realised what gardens can do for them in good times and bad. They’re tremendously good for mental health, and if they’re good for people when they're struggling, just think how good they could be when they’re not. A garden is so enriching, physically and spiritually."
Returning to Ormiston, I suggest that gardens are good family spaces too, and gardening is something families can do together. "Yes, in a beautiful place, or a place they can make beautiful. There’s something deeply, deeply satisfying about improving a patch of ground, about leaving it in better heart when you shuffle off your mortal coil. If you garden, and your patch is growing things better than when you arrived, then you’ve paid your way with your time and energy."
How much energy does Alan Titchmarsh still have, I ask? Has he thought about slowing down? He chuckles. "Well, I’ve tried to pace myself a bit better. It’s important to me that I have time for family and friends. But I doubt I'll retire." Finally, I resist the temptation to ask for a gardening tip and instead ask him for one piece of advice he'd give to his 21-year-old self. Without hesitation he says: "You’re not just here to make up the numbers." Make a difference. He’s done that in many different ways.
“I’ve tried," he says. "I've been very, very lucky.”
Have lunch with Alan
Ormiston Families has a number of events coming up. They're valuable fundraising opportunities for the charity, as well as giving the community a chance to meet members of the team and learn more about the organisation’s services.
Sunday September 4
Walk With a Fork
In collaboration with the East of England Co-op, this great event is a foodie delight. Walk around the grounds of Helmingham Hall, while sampling local produce from a number of stalls. Not to be missed!
Tuesday 20 September
Lunch With Alan Titchmarsh MBE
Take your seat for an unmissable occasion and help support Ormiston Families at the same time.
Saturday October 8
‘Charlie & The Dig’ – An Evening With Charlie Haycock
Historian and dialect coach Charlie Haycock is well known in the county, and now deserves even more recognition, having helped award-winning actor Ralph Fiennes perfect his Suffolk accent for the film The Dig. Hear about this and more during this special event.
Monday 21 November
Annual Lecture – An Evening With Charlie Taylor
The Ormiston Families’ Annual Lecture is always an exceptional occasion, and this will be no exception. You’ll hear from Charlie Taylor, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons. This event will be held at Murray
Edwards College in Cambridge, and includes drinks and light refreshments.
For details on all of these and other events, go to ormiston.org/events