Alan Titchmarsh is Britain’s best known gardener, as well as a hugely popular television presenter and writer. He talks to Chris Bond ahead of his return ‘home’ to Ilkley.
The view from the Cow and Calf rocks on Ilkley Moor sweeping down over the bustling town below is one of the most stunning you will find anywhere in the country, never mind Yorkshire.
It’s also a favourite spot of one of Ilkley’s most famous sons, Alan Titchmarsh. “The view from the Cow and Calf rocks will always remain my favourite view,” he said, recently.
“I grew up in this Dales town, and the view reminds me of how lucky I was to grow up in such a wonderful part of the country. Moors, woods and riverside were my childhood playground, and I cherish the time I spend there.”
It’s a view he may well reacquaint himself with when he returns ‘home’ next month for the Ilkley Literature Festival.
These days he lives on the Isle of Wight – “I can grow plants here that I can’t on the mainland” – but he’s never forgotten his roots, or in his case grassroots, and he remains a regular visitor to the town he grew up in. “It’s where I’m from and it’s always a delight to come back,” he says.
When he returns in October he will be talking about his latest novel, Mr Gandy’s Grand Tour, which charts the story of Timothy Gandy who suddenly finds his humdrum existence turned on its head and embarks on a grand tour of Europe.
He follows in the footsteps of wealthy 18th Century aristocrats, expecting to immerse himself in culture and high art but instead ends up finding new friendships on his grand journey.
It’s an engaging tale well told and underlines the 67 year-old’s sometimes overlooked talent for storytelling. “It’s my tenth novel and they’ve all been different,” he says. “With this one I wanted to explore the idea of a man from an ordinary background who’s life has dwindled a bit but who then gets the chance to fulfil his dreams.”
Alan Titchmarsh has established himself as a hugely popular broadcaster and writer, but it’s as a gardening guru that he became a household name back in the 1980s.
“I’ve always been passionate about gardening and I’ve always been interested in being able to use your imagination and creativity. But I never imagined I’d be able to make a career out of writing. It’s not bad for an 11-plus failure,” he says, self-deprecatingly.
His career has certainly blossomed from his days as a teenager in the 1960s when he first took to the stage and performed with the Ilkley Players’.
The son of plumber Alan (who was also a part-time fireman in the town) and Bessie Titchmarsh, he left school at the age of 15 and became an apprentice gardener at the local nursery, before going on to train at horticultural college and then the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew.
He left Kew to concentrate on being a gardening journalist, though his subsequent television career, as so often is the case, came about by happenstance.
A TV producer heard him on a radio programme and invited him to appear on Nationwide, the BBC’s long-running news programme. “I remember coming home afterwards and thinking ‘wow, that was exciting’, and that’s how it started.”
His appearances as a horticultural expert on the show led him to presenting coverage of the Chelsea Flower Show for the Beeb in 1983 – something he did for the next 30 years.
During this time he became one of the most recognisable faces, and voices, on TV – his easy charm earning leading him to be dubbed the ‘housewives favourite”.
He was also the main presenter of Gardeners’ World and the hugely popular Ground Force and went on to host the BBC1’s daytime chat show Pebble Mill At One in the early 90s, before later hosting The Alan Titchmarsh Show on ITV which ran for eight years until 2014.
In 1999 he was part of the Ground Force team that travelled to South Africa and gave Nelson Mandela’s garden a makeover, spending time with the revered former president. “He really was a wonderful man. He had this quiet, powerful charisma and he was absolutely charming.”
During his career Alan has interviewed everyone from Hollywood stars to prime ministers. “For me a chat show is there to show the audience what someone is really like, it should be about them rather than me,” he says.
He honed his interviewing techniques during his time on Pebble Mill. “You learnt what not to do,” he says. “The great danger is you try to be best friends with the person you’re talking to and that’s not what it’s about because you can end up being sycophantic with people you admire.”
Even so he’s had to contend with a few prickly interviewees over the years, including Bette Davis, who once walked out on him during a radio interview.
But it’s not his style, he says, to be confrontational. “Some interviewers try and catch people out but I find you get more out of someone when it’s more of a conversation.”
However, snooty attitudes towards these kind of ‘softer’ interviews still persist. “Daytime telly is a bit different, it’s not all about politics and I’m not Jeremy Paxman,” he says.
“When I interviewed David Cameron on the box I was pilloried by one newspaper for asking him whether he preferred Coronation Street or EastEnders, which they said was trite. But they still repeated the questions I asked and reported the answers.”
If working in television satisfies his inner thespian then, he clearly enjoys the freedom that writing has given him.
“It’s about connecting with the reader. If you’re lucky you articulate something they have been thinking about and then it becomes a shared experience whether it’s in fiction or a newspaper column,” he says.
“I’m confident in my own company, I enjoy the solitude of gardening and writing and to marry the two things is great. But I’m also interested in people and I enjoy good conversation.”
Having reached a pensionable age his passion for gardening remains undimmed. “I do a bit of pottering every day. I like to beautify, to create something beautiful that gives people pleasure,” he says.
“The best gardens at the Chelsea Flower Show aren’t just those that look great, it’s the ones you most want to be in, that remind us of the importance of nature.”
For all his success and the praise he’s been garlanded with over the years he hasn’t lost sight of who he is or where he’s come from. “I’m a gardener, that’s my stock in trade, but like many other people I have several interests. I’m a gardener that’s been allowed to do other things and that really is an enormous treat.”
Alan Titchmarsh is appearing at Kings Hall, Ilkley, on Monday, October 10. Tickets are priced £14. For more details go to ilkleyliteraturefestival.org or call 01943 816 714.
Mr Gandy’s Grand Tour, published by Hodder & Stoughton, is out now.