Interview: Alan blooms again
PUBLISHED: 12:29 19 May 2014 | UPDATED: 12:36 19 May 2014
Alan Titchmarsh, garden expert, chat show host and novelist, remembers his early days in Hertfordshire that led him to a career as fertile as his garden
‘Modesty forbids me to say that I have changed the face of British gardening,’ responds Alan Titchmarsh to an opening and rather provoking question, but sitting down with the broadcaster, presenter and writer, we know he’s being unnecessarily self-effacing. The reality is, for more than three decades he has been the cheery face of the organic outdoors, the go-to celebrity gardener, no matter what your horticultural persuasion.
Yet, while everyone knows and recognises the 64-year-old’s passion for gardening (as well as a late-career move into writing novels), what might be less widely recognised is how much Hertfordshire helped shape the man into an oracle of all things green - although perhaps not in the way you would expect.
As a teenager, Yorkshire-born Titchmarsh came to the county to study at the Hertfordshire College of Agriculture and Horticulture – a time he looks back on with great fondness. ‘Ah, it was tremendous. I did my apprenticeship in Yorkshire and then I went to Oaklands, just outside St Albans, for a one-year full-time National Certificate in Horticulture. The learning curve was huge! I was learning how to grow commercial glasshouse crops, ornamental plants, tomatoes, cucumbers – it was an amazing year I had here.
‘The Hertfordshire countryside is magnificent, all dotted with gorgeous towns and villages. And of course, this all happened when I was in my late teens, so the social life was quite good as well,’ he chuckles, with unmistakable Titchmarsh giddiness.
That social life (he wouldn’t elaborate, beyond another hearty laugh) meant the gardener didn’t have too much time to explore the beautiful landscape however. ‘I do regret that,’ he adds. ‘There was a complete juxtaposition between heading off to the pub – and that’s what everyone else was doing – and venturing out into the landscape, which, I guess, was the point of me being there. The pub won! But it was 40 years ago, so forgive me. And of course, if I had the choice now, I’d choose the landscape, probably. In fact, I do, regularly. We’re always off on country walks to national parks and arboretums.’
Whether or not Titchmarsh fully immersed himself in his studies, what’s clear is his time spent in Hertfordshire set him well on the way to a fantastic television career in which he has dug, picked, mown, sowed and trimmed every species of plant imaginable.
Of late however, things have changed. He has brought to an end his popular daytime chat show, preferring to focus more on what is becoming a prolific turn in novel writing. His latest work, the ninth from the Titchmarsh stable, is called Bring Me Home, and tells the tale Charlie Stuart, whose past catches up with him in the Scottish Highlands. Like all of his novels, the sense of place is overriding.
‘I always set my stories in places that I know and love, but I hadn’t written one about Scotland and I really wanted to. And I guess when you consider Scotland you have to consider the Highlands – it’s a place I really love and, even these days, I don’t I think enough people know about its beauty. It’s so majestic and awe-inspiring, and it struck me that it would make the perfect setting for a novel. Roll in Scottish castles and murder mystery, and it was the ideal base for a plot.’
Unlike methodically working your way around a garden, Titchmarsh says he is never quite sure where his stories will go when he sits down to write them. ‘It’s strange how stories formulate in the end, I suppose it is a bit like chemistry – I never have a plot, the plot always evolves with the characters and what happens to them. I write the first chapter not knowing what’s going to happen next, then throw a spanner in the works and see where it goes.’
And if you’ve ever read a Titchmarsh novel, and sensed that the main character bears an uncanny resemblance to a certain flora fan, you could well be on to something – the author admits there are elements of himself in all the leading men he creates.
‘You infuse them with your own sensibilities – I think you have to. It’s all about that investment of the self in the project. A lot of what they see, I see; and a lot of what I see, they see. You can only really write about what you have experienced, or what you have imagined in your head. Okay, so I’ve never murdered anyone, honest, but I try to live that moment in my head.’
He laughs as he says how improbable a move into releasing novels was, and how much of a risk it represented when his first book hit the shelves in 1998. ‘Why would you put your head above the parapet?’ he acknowledges. ‘It was foolhardy, really. And I’d always baulked at the title ‘celebrity novelist’, but I’m a writer first and celebrity second.’
So back to that original point – the notion that British gardening is all the better for his presence: ‘I would never make such a grandiose claim,’ he responds. ‘I just hope I might have made gardening a bit easier to understand.’
His enthusiasm and easy manner has certainly provided the bedrock for a new generation of gardeners to enjoy the sort of public profile, other experts, such as celebrity chefs, enjoy.
‘There are plenty of people coming through, and we need to keep hold of them. Anyone who is willing to pass on a passion for horticulture and engage people about why it is important, without boring the pants off the average viewer, is vital. And there are lots of them about.’
He name-checks Joe Swift, Annemarie Powell and Katy Rushworth as having the potential to keep the greenfingered public in ‘safe hands’ (that’s his pun, not ours). ‘Yet,’ he continues, ‘It’s really not about celebrities. You’re not going to get a TV name coming round digging out your beds. Well, not unless you’re lucky. Gardening has been and will always be about people at home getting involved and doing it under their own steam. And we’ll continue to encourage people to do that by making the whole thing more interesting and exciting. There is a new philosophy at the moment – and that’s to banish the mystique of people saying they can’t do it or they are too frightened to do it. We just need to show people that they can. It is actually 90 per cent common sense.’
So with a deeper focus on his carrer as a novelist and talk of the next TV gardening generation, is this his way of gently slipping away from the spotlight?
‘Hey, I never said that,’ he laughs.
ALAN’S HERTS FAVOURITES>>>.
‘Hatfield House is magnificent with some stunning gardens. Combining elegant shrubs with immaculate hedges and sweeping vistas, this is a place that really shows off the majesty of large garden space.
‘The Hertfordshire Garden Show at Knebworth House I love because it brings together so much innovation. It’s not just for the traditionalists, it encompasses all manner of modern and contemporary garden design. Sometimes it’s good to look outside of what we do. Gardening moves a bit slower than, say, fashion, but it does progress over time.’
‘I think any gardener would want people to see his own garden, so that would be on my list as well. If you can’t relax and be content in your own garden then I don’t think there is anywhere for you! My garden, for me, represents a place where I can unburden myself of all worries. Very often I’m out there until it’s dark – it’s just such a homely place.’