Growing up on the edge of Ilkley in Yorkshire, Alan Titchmarsh spent his childhood playing on the river-bank and moor. Nature absorbed him from an early age. “I collected frog-spawn on the local tarn in winter and grew it into frogs. The countryside has always been part of my life. My cousin’s grandfather was a gamekeeper and it seemed wonderfully mysterious and exciting.” The first shoots of his gardening career emerged when he was nine years old. “I found I could sow a seed and it would come up, or take a cutting and it would root; a little bit of success emboldens you to try more,” he says. Titchmarsh didn’t enjoy school and left aged 15 to become an apprentice gardener with Ilkley Council. His father was a plumber and wasn’t best pleased with his son’s chosen career path. But horticulture was in his blood. Both his paternal grandfather and great-grandfather had been gardeners, but in their day it was difficult to make much of a living from it. “My father didn’t realise you could be trained in horticulture. I was eventually going to college and then on to Kew Gardens.” After teaching at Kew for a couple of years, he went into horticultural journalism, becoming a gardening books editor for Hamlyn and then moving to magazines as deputy editor of Amateur Gardening. His childhood hero had been Percy Thrower. “He did Gardening Club on a Friday night which eventually became Gardeners’ World. I told my friends I wanted to be like him when I grew up and they just laughed at me.”
His first appearance on television was in 1979 when he was asked to give advice on how to deal with the greenfly invasion on the south-east coast. He became the horticultural expert for Nationwide, and was later asked to present coverage of the Chelsea Flower Show for the BBC, which he still does. Stints hosting Pebble Mill at One followed, after which, for seven years Titchmarsh was the main presenter of BBC 2’s Gardeners’ World, which was broadcast from his garden, Barleywood in Hampshire. In 1997 he took gardening to the masses with the popular BBC 1 series Ground Force, which, at its peak, pulled in 12 million viewers.
“Gardening was infra dig when I did it,” admits Titchmarsh. “It was what people who couldn’t think of anything else did for a living.” But in his lifetime – he has just turned 60 – gardening has become fashionable.”It’s been wonderful to see people realise that gardeners are, in effect, apart from gamekeepers, the only interactive naturalists. Birdwatchers watch birds, botanists observe flowers, but gardeners get involved and grow them.” He admits he is a “kind of evangelical gardener”, and has always thought that people who think gardening has nothing to do with nature “are completely missing the point”.
For him, the two are totally interlinked. “The wildlife in my garden is as important as the plants,” he says.”Happy” and “bewildered” are words he uses to describe his illustrious life, one which has spanned countless television programmes, 40 gardening books, seven novels, plus his memoirs (volume three is just out). And he is busier than ever. Turn on Radio 2 on Sunday evening and there is his ever-engaging voice presenting Melodies for You; and on ITV he has his own daytime show. Our interview was conducted on the phone on his way home from the television studios. On the way there he was too busy reading the scripts. One of the 50 charities of which he is patron is the National Gamekeepers’ Organisation. “Their motto is ‘keeping the balance,’ and that for me sums it up. A lot of people think gamekeepering is just about killing, but if you talk to a gamekeeper they are equally, if not more, concerned with preserving nature. These are men more in tune with nature than anybody else and I have a lot of time for them. They are practical countrymen.”
In the Nature of Britain series, which he presented in 2007 on BBC 1, Titchmarsh was keen to show that game management and shooting have influenced the way the countryside looks. “The most important thing to realise,” he says, “is that every square inch of it is managed. I think many people are quite ignorant about why it looks the way it does.” He remembers sitting down with a famous TV personality, who said, resolutely, “I don’t think anyone should own land.” Their conversation ended abruptly there. “I thought he’s never going to get the point that we are custodians and stewards of the landscape”, he says. “We need landowners who understand the need to employ people who are sympathetic and empathetic with the natural world. If we didn’t fish rivers nobody would cut weed, rivers would silt up and towns and villages would be flooded. If we didn’t shoot grouse moorland wouldn’t be maintained as moorland, and if we didn’t rear pheasants coverts wouldn’t be planted.” Fearful that people are increasingly insulated from country life, he and his wife Alison set up Gardens for Schools. The charity has given more than 300 grants to primary schools to make nature areas. “We are encouraging children to get used to where things come from and appreciate the value of seasonality rather than wanting to eat raspberries in January that are from Kenya.” In addition to the house in Hampshire, the Titchmarshes have a home on the Isle of Wight – sailing is another hobby. He also goes back to Yorkshire a lot: “They always say you can take the man out of Yorkshire, but you can’t take Yorkshire out of the man,” he reminds. Titchmarsh counts himself incredibly blessed. “It’s just being able to follow your beliefs and your passions, whether it’s gardening, music, writing novels or talking to people and asking questions. I feel I’ve had more chances than anyone’s been given, and I really enjoy what I do.”