People We Love: Alan Titchmarsh

Gemma Calvert / 19 February 2018

He redesigned Nelson Mandela’s garden, became a bestselling author and interviewed royalty. Now 68, he’s back with a second series of Secrets of the National Trust.

What have been your highlights of the new series?

At Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire, which was built in the style of a French château for Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild in the late 19th century, there’s a large red book with big photographs of the property. The most poignant thing was the foreword by the baron, which says, ‘I suspect that when I’m gone, this will all disappear’ and it hasn’t. It’s terribly moving.

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What’s the most important role the National Trust has in modern Britain?

It’s a custodian of our history and, often, recent history. I was in Southwell, Nottingham, at a workhouse built in the mid-19th century, but they were still taking people in there for social housing until the 1980s.

I spoke to one woman who was there in the late 1960s with her mother who had become an alcoholic and five of them lived in one room. It’s not just Oliver Twist time, at a comfortable distance.

How will the National Trust evolve in the next 50 years?

It will continue to play a big role because its motto is ‘For ever, for everyone’. At the moment, the Trust is no longer getting many big houses, not least because they need endowments to keep them going. But they are more actively taking on British coastline and countryside that needs looking after. For example, they’ve just bought a lump of The White Cliffs of Dover.

Read about Alan's favourite National Trust gardens

Why do history and historical buildings mean so much to you?

When I went to school, history was about dates. It was dry, dusty, yesterday and not remotely relevant. Now, I love it because I can go to these buildings and see where I’ve come from and how the other half live. If I could tell my 14-year-old self one thing, I’d say ‘get out and look at it and find your own stories’.

I collect old books, so opening the page of a book where somebody’s written their name in the front in 1752 - coo! I’m looking at the same text as they looked at. It does something for me.

A clip from Series One of Secrets of the National Trust

Which garden do you wish you had created?

I envy a Capability Brown landscape – the rolling parklands. I tend to like gardens that exemplify the genius of the place. There’s a garden in Cornwall called Antony, which is owned by a friend, Richard Carew-Pole. He’s got a fine collection of camellias and rhododendrons, and when you walk up a hill there’s a lump of rock where you stand and look down on the estuary. It sends a shiver down my spine because it’s the most wonderful spot.

The best Capability Brown gardens

Which current gardener do you most admire?

The standard of garden design now is greater than it’s ever been. Arne Maynard isn’t young but I admire his stuff and how Kim Wilkie does brave things with landscapes like Orpheus at Boughton, near Kettering, which is inverted pyramids in grass. It’s art and I like that kind of design. I’m not mad about gardens that are all grasses and daisies. I've done that, I’ve been there.

What’s the one gardening tip everyone should know?

Look at your garden for quite a while before doing anything; get a compass and watch where the sun hits it. Most people aren’t aware where north is in their garden but it’s vital because if you’re going to plant something that likes sun and you place it in the north bit, it won’t grow.

How do you make even the tiniest plot a beautiful garden?

Understand your ground and grow plants that will like the type you’re in. I had an email from a lady in Scotland recently who said ‘I can’t grow this and and I can’t grow that but I can grow primulas like you wouldn’t believe!’ I emailed her back, saying ’I’m so envious, because I’m down in Hampshire and my ground is chalky and dry, I can’t grow Candelabra primulas and I hate you!’ She filled my heart with joy.

What impact do you think you’ve had on gardening in this country?

I hope I’ve encouraged people to have a go. Gardening is the sharp end of conservation. We all need to look after our own little bit. People think, ‘What can I do apart from turn the light off?’ Look after your little patch, grow some veg and don’t be put off when something doesn’t work the first time. There’s usually a reason why, because plants want to grow. It’s up to us not to get in the way.

You’re portrayed as being quite friendly with the Queen. Is that true and what unexpected things do you talk about?

We are acquainted. She knows who I am. I’ve sat next to her at lunch a couple of times and the conversation is very rangy and very interesting and I’ve a lot of time for her.

My first encounter was in 1985. I did a garden for the Chelsea Flower Show, which had vegetables growing in it, and when she came around she said ‘your onions are very small’. I said ‘Oh, I’m sorry’ and she replied ‘No, I like them small. When they’re big, they taste of nothing at all’.

Fast forward to 2014 and I did another garden at Chelsea called From The Moors To The Sea to celebrate my 50 years in gardening and 50 years of Britain in Bloom. I showed her my garden and she said ‘your boulders are very large’. I thought we’d come a long way!

Is it true you enjoy bell ringing and what’s the appeal?

My mum and dad were bell ringers and, when I was 12, I started ringing the bells in the parish church [Alan grew up on the edge of Ilkley Moor in Yorkshire]. These days I ring two or three times a year and I suppose there’s a degree of sentimentality about it.

Most people retire to spend more time in the garden. What will you do?

I won’t retire, if I’m allowed to carry on. I want to pace it a bit more now, though, because I’ve got four grandchildren – two boys and two girls, aged two, three, four and five – and they only live ten minutes away.

They keep me on my toes, or on my back! They’re great fun and I don’t want to miss it. Any programme proposal that starts with ‘travels the length and breadth…’ No! On my death bed I won’t be saying, ‘I wish I’d made that series about x’. You have to get that balance right and I’m going to strive a bit harder.

Do you still get lots of letters from amorous women?

I still get letters and cards, though not tons. They’re quite harmless and very nice. I can’t take it seriously because the moment you do, you start pulling a Daniel Craig pout.

Secrets of the National Trust is on Channel 5. See listings for details

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