Painful secret of gardening pundit laid bare at Chelsea

Chris Beardshaw
Chris Beardshaw
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TV and radio horticulture expert Chris Beardshaw will unveil an ‘arthritis garden’ at this year’s Chelsea Flower Show. Grace Hammond found out why.

There’s only one tell-tale sign of the pain that he suffers daily. Chris Beardshaw allows only his heels to touch each step, carefully avoiding any pressure on his toes.

It’s a habit he’s developed over the years to avoid jarring his feet, which, from the age of 13, were so severely affected by arthritis that specialists predicted he would be confined to a wheelchair before he was 20.

Beardshaw, who’s currently appearing on BBC Two’s The Beechgrove Garden series and is a popular panellist on Radio Four’s Gardener’s Question Time, is revealing for the first time his private and courageous 30-year battle to defy that life-limiting diagnosis.

He lives in a stunning barn conversion with a view of rolling fields and woodland, that he shares with his wife Frances and their three daughters aged 14, seven and five.

“I’ve never spoken in detail about my arthritis before,” says Beardshaw.

But this year, he has laid bare the despair and struggle, as well as the inspiring potential to triumph over the condition, in the way he knows best.

He has created a show garden for Arthritis Research UK at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, which opens later this month. Its layout is designed to symbolise three stages – diagnosis, finding help and managing the condition.

“It’s been very cathartic for me to create this and it’s the most honest and personal garden I’ve ever done,” says Beardshaw, 43.

“It’s wonderful to be able to show that nowadays there’s so much support out there for people and they don’t have to feel alone in struggling to cope with it.”

It was very different 30 years ago. Beardshaw vividly recalls when, as a talented sports-mad teenager who represented Worcestershire in running, his world changed.

He came home one day after a football match and the joint of his big toe on his right foot was stiff and sore.

“It started to swell as soon as I took my shoe off and just got worse and worse,” he says, grimacing at the memory.

“Within a couple of weeks, the stiffness and swelling had spread to all my toes and I couldn’t even get my shoes on.

“What was so frightening for me and my family was that no-one seemed to know why it was happening.”

Diagnosis was less accurate than today and blood tests to detect arthritis and rheumatism proved negative, leaving specialists and consultants baffled.

Unable to walk properly, Beardshaw ended up hobbling the mile to his school and he had to give up all sport.

He also underwent a range of treatments including high doses of anti-inflammatory drugs, intramuscular injections and radiation therapy, all of which proved fruitless.

Finally, when he was 16, he was diagnosed with a form of rheumatoid arthritis, but was warned of a bleak future.

“The specialist told me and my parents that I could just accept the condition but if I kept deteriorating at the current rate I would be in a wheelchair by the time I was 19. Or, I could have surgery and they’d cut all my toe joints out and replace them with plastic ones.”

“It would take a year for two operations and recovery and because my feet were still growing, the whole procedure would have to be repeated when I was in my mid-20s.”

Beardshaw refused to jeopardise his plan to go to horticultural college and fulfil his dream of becoming a professional gardener.

Disillusioned with conventional medicine, Beardshaw employed sheer willpower to cope with the pain, rather than taking painkillers.

Over the years, he has relied on an effective combination of vitamins, supplements and alternative remedies to boost his joint health and combat inflammation.

Creating the show garden for Arthritis Research UK came about by chance when Beardshaw met representatives from the charity while working on the TV presenting team at last year’s Chelsea Flower Show.

He’s worked with medical specialists and others with the condition to create the garden.

“It’s so important to raise awareness so money goes into researching this condition and I hope the garden will play a part in that.”

For more information or a free information booklet, Gardening and Arthritis, visit www.arthritisresearchuk.org or www.facebook.com/arthritisresearchuk The RHS Chelsea Flower show runs from May 21 to May 25.