The One Show's Christine Walkden talks about her new book
Pat Parker talks to her about her new book, her passion for plants, how she has coped with fame and why she is helping the Helen Rollason Cancer Charity
CHRISTINE WALKDEN is something of a TV rarity – a down-to-earth Lancashire lass in her 50s who has never been near Botox and, in fact, has done nothing to polish her image for the small screen. But Christine knows her onions – and any other plant you care to mention. Her horticultural knowledge combined with her obvious passion for gardening is what has made her a TV and radio favourite, and The One Show’s resident gardening expert. Christine has had regular slots on the Paul O’Grady Show, is a regular Gardeners’ Question Time panellist, reports on the Chelsea Flower Show and has even appeared on Shooting Stars. Now, she has just published a new book. No-Nonsense Vegetable Gardening, which she hopes will enthuse even the least green-fingered gardener.Unmarried, she lives with her labrador puppy and 10,000 gardening books in an ordinary, ex-council, semi-detached house in Sawbridgeworth, near Bishop’s Stortford. Her small garden is, she cheerfully admits, nothing special, but it is known to millions of TV viewers from the two series of Christine’s Garden which ran on BBC2 a few years ago. The series showed Christine tending her garden, giving horticultural talks around the country and chatting with her neighbour, Reg, who sadly died last year. Christine’s infectious enthusiasm for her garden and her close relationship with Reg won viewers’ hearts. ‘Christine’s Garden seemed to get under people’s skins,’ says Christine, as we sip coffee in her living room. ‘There was something magical about it. Even now, wherever I go, people ask me about the programme and about Reg. He was the real star.’
Christine is keen to use her celebrity status to help publicise the Chelmsford-based Helen Rollason Cancer Charity’s Bloomin’ Spring campaign. For �10, donators receive 25 bulbs to plant in memory of their loved ones and last November, Christine helped plant 28,000 daffodil and hyacinth bulbs in Chelmsford’s Central Park – more will be planted this year. Christine was keen to support the charity after she had a cancer scare herself in 2009. ‘When you’ve been affected by something like cancer, you feel you want to do what you can to help.’ We take a walk through Christine’s attractive garden, past the bird feeders, the budding bulbs and herbaceous borders, to the vegetable garden at the top. ‘My garden is a bit rambly – a bit of a zoo,’ laughs Christine. ‘A garden designer would have 50,000 fits and I’ve known professional gardeners who’ve come here and thought it was a dump. There are probably umpteen better gardens down my street, but it doesn’t bother me – I’m not competitive or pretentious. I don’t want a showcase garden. It’s the relationship I have with my garden that matters.’Christine believes there is an almost spiritual relationship between garden and gardener. ‘I remember one man stopping me in Brentwood. He said, “You’ve made me realise why I’ve been crying for four years”. He said that since his wife died, the garden had no life, no meaning for him any more. Often when a person dies who’s been intimate to the garden, the soul goes from it and it’s never the same again.’Christine’s first garden had very little life at all. She was born in 1957, in a back-to-back terraced house in Rishton, near Blackburn, with a paved backyard. Her parents, who ran a sports outfitters shop, had no interest in gardening, but she can remember planting crocus bulbs at primary school, and feeling miffed when she wasn’t asked to look after them.At an early age, Christine started growing cress and carrot tops on her bedroom window and progressed to filling the backyard with containers. Next, she looked after her neighbours’ tiny front gardens. ‘By 11, I was caring for 53 of them, and being paid for it.’
One day, she caught sight of ‘a green oasis’ two streets away. It turned out to be an allotment and Christine nagged her parents until she was able to take over a disused plot, filling it with flowers and vegetables which she sold to neighbours and teachers. At 13 she persuaded her headmaster to let her do a day-release horticultural course at her local college, even though her fellow students were 18-year-olds with jobs. She left her secondary modern with a City and Guilds in horticulture, but no CSEs. Yet her family gave her no encouragement. Her father had expected her to join the family business. ‘I’ve had a fantastic career, but my family took no interest in it whatsoever,’ she says, sadly. ‘I always say I gained a career, but lost a family.’It was only on his deathbed two years ago that her father finally said he was proud of her.In 1989, Christine came to Essex to study at Writtle Agricultural College, before lecturing at Capel Manor in Enfield and later she joined the Baby Bio company in Waltham Cross, although she still lectured at evenings and weekends. Finally, she took the plunge and become a freelance horticulturalist, writing, lecturing and leading escorted tours abroad. Her growing reputation as a natural communicator meant she was offered gardening slots on both BBC Essex Radio and LBC. Soon, TV took an interest and after a couple of ITV series she started presenting on Gardeners’ World. ‘It didn’t really work, though. They put me in make-up. It wasn’t me.’
Unearthing TV goldFor 20 years, Christine has lectured at Writtle College as an RHS tutor and last year she was proud to have received an honorary degree from Essex University, presented by Alan Titchmarsh. It was a former Writtle student who suggested to a BBC commissioning editor that Christine could be TV gold. A producer came to talk to her and a series was planned, although no one seemed quite sure what it would be about. ‘Right up until filming, I’d assumed I’d be presenting a gardening programme,’ says Christine, ‘but then I found them filming my photos and I realised the programme was actually about me. That was a big shock and I wasn’t happy at all. It turned out that they hadn’t commissioned an actual programme, they’d just commissioned me. So Christine’s Garden just evolved. They recorded my life, no more, no less – me pottering about in my garden, chatting to neighbours – they followed me wherever I went for a year.’The series beautifully captured Christine’s natural ebullience as well as her vulnerabilities, her passion for her garden and the warmth of her relationship with Reg. But she was so worried about how it would be received, she left the country before it was screened.However, Christine’s Garden became a huge success. ‘I came back expecting totally negative reviews, but the reception was fantastic,’ she says. ‘I was machine-gunned with complements and I really struggled with that. I spent two months crying. It touched people’s lives in a way I never expected. It’s been a very odd journey and one that’s continued, as the warmth and love from people is still there.’But TV takes up only a small part of Christine’s time. Her new book gives plain, simple advice on how to grow vegetables. ‘Even if you’ve never grown a seedling in your life, you’ll understand this,’ says Christine. ‘There’s no technical jargon, and it will take you on a journey.’ Christine can travel 3,000 miles a week taking part in talks, lectures and theatre tours, and has led horticultural tours all over the world, from the Himalayas to Iraq, and this November she will explore Chile. There is always something new to discover. ‘Travel teaches you how little you know,’ reflects Christine. ‘I’m supposed to be quite knowledgeable, but you see another country’s flora and you realise how much more there is to learn. The one thing I know is I wish I knew as much as I don’t know. One life is never enough!’
Find out moreEssex Life’s Charity of the Year, The Helen Rollason Cancer Charity, is the legacy of the BBC sports presenter who died of cancer in 1999. It funds cancer research and supports cancer patients in the community. Anyone wishing to donate to the Bloomin’ Spring campaign in memory of a loved one should call 01245 514325 or visit www.helenrollason.org.uk to download a registration form.Christine’s new bookNo-Nonsense Vegetable Gardening, How to Grow Vegetables in Small Gardens, is published on March 31 by Simon and Shuster, priced �16.99. ISBN 9781847378644.