Born: Ilkley, Yorkshire, 1949
First job: apprentice gardener Honours: MBE, RHS Victoria Medal
Britain’s most famous gardener is now the author of seven best-selling novels, and Folly, a tale of romance, intrigue and two warring families, is his most ambitious to date.
‘It’s a romantic adventure and the first time I’ve used a split time frame in a novel,’ Alan Titchmarsh explains. ‘The families are a bit like the Montagues and Capulets, and Jamie and Artemis are like Romeo and Juliet. The setting is in the world of art and antiques. I tend to write about subjects I am passionate about and choose places that I love, so this is set in Bath and Oxford, cities I adore.’
A Yorkshireman by birth, Titchmarsh has spent most of his adult life in southern England. He and his wife, Alison, and their two daughters, lived for several years in Barleywood in Hampshire, where, over a period of seven years, BBC television viewers would see him working in the garden as he presented Gardeners’ World. The family still live in Hampshire, but now also have a home on the Isle of Wight where they spend a lot of their time. ‘Alison and I fell in love with the island about ten years ago after I bought an old thirty-eight-foot trawler yacht; we used to pootle up and down the Solent and across to Cowes. We kept the boat at Chichester but, having liked the island so much, we decided to move her over and buy a flat in Cowes. We absolutely love it. There’s a wonderful feeling of being a little distanced from the hurly-burly of life. For a small island, it has tremendously varied scenery—oh, and an amazing steam railway, which is one of my big things.’
In April 2008, Titchmarsh was appointed High Sheriff of the Isle of Wight for one year, a busy role that he takes very seriously. (Read his daily diary at www.highsheriff-iow.org.uk/diary.) It seems an almost full-time commitment, but this year he has also managed to see Folly through to publication, present Melodies for You on Sunday evening radio, as well as host his own daytime television show. And this doesn’t even touch on the hours he gives to more than forty charities. ‘These days I spend half my time meeting people who do voluntary work. It makes you realise that what you read, or see on the television news, is only a fraction of what’s going on. All we are fed is gloom and disaster . . . There are an awful lot of good folk in the world just quietly getting on. Doing good stuff.’
It’s these solid, unpretentious folk for whom Alan Titchmarsh writes. ‘I am their man,’ he says. ‘I often say to Ali, when we’ve had a really good night somewhere with what someone else might call ordinary people, “Those are our folk.” They’re honest-to-goodness people who like reading a story or looking at gardening on the telly. They know who I am, and what I am, and they’re happy with me. End of sermon.’ The presenter’s enormous popularity—people voted him among their fifty favourite television stars of all time—is testament to the fact that he speaks for a lot of people and represents what they believe in, or would like to believe in.
Titchmarsh is not one to talk about his Christian faith, but says that Christian values underpin what he does. His standards are also deeply rooted in the Yorkshire of his childhood. ‘My mother would say, “If you can’t say anything nice about someone, don’t say anything,” and, “Treat others as you like to be treated yourself.” It’s about goodness. It’s under-rated.’ But while his thoroughly down-to-earth goodness is beyond dispute, he still remains an intriguing contradiction—a man who loves to perform (he met his wife at an operatic society) but who also likes to spend his time alone, gardening, writing, or setting off somewhere new in a boat. ‘Sailing. I love it. It’s a great escape. When you’re on a boat you’re looking at nature in the raw. You can immerse yourself.’