PUBLISHED: 15:57 20 June 2014 | UPDATED: 15:57 20 June 2014
His list of horticultural accolades is almost never-ending and Alan Titchmarsh holds a special place in the nation’s heart. But there is a corner of Essex that holds a special place in Alan’s heart, and that is Writtle College
He is probably the nation’s best-loved gardener, with his affable nature, addictive enthusiasm for gardening and, of course, that mischievous glint in his eye, but Alan Titchmarsh is particularly cherished in one area of Essex.
Speak to any student who has completed their horticulture degree at Writtle College over the last 13 years and they are likely to remember his witty address to them at their graduation ceremony and the fact he took the time to speak to them — and be photographed with as many members of their family as possible — after the annual Chelmsford Cathedral event.
Committing to the college year-after-year as its patron, even though his diary is positively bursting with television shows and book promotions, is testament not only to his high regard for the 120-year-old institution — where there is an animal studies centre named after him — but the fact that he has a real desire to pass on his enthusiasm for horticulture to the next generation.
‘All those years ago, the college gave me an honorary degree and I was truly honoured,’ says Alan. ‘The year after, when the Duchess of Kent stepped down as patron, they asked me to be patron.
It is a college with a tremendous ethos and a great reputation, not only in horticulture but in equine, landscaping and land management. It’s great, from my point of view, to be connected and associated with a college that promotes life skills and job skills at that level.
We have got a great shortage of skilled horticulture and land management people, so the college’s work is very important to the future of the industry.’
Alan adds: ‘I’ve found every graduation ceremony I’ve been to over the last 13 years very moving. I feel that this is a relay race and that I am handing on the baton to these graduates saying, “Here you are; here’s my career, take care of it and run with it”.’
It is a career that has given him five decades of obvious pleasure. For Alan, horticulture has been inextricably linked to journalism for many of these 50 years, earning him his place in the hearts of millions across the nation.
This is from beginnings in rural Yorkshire on the edge of Ilkley Moor. After training — including at Kew — he became a horticultural journalist and an editor of gardening magazines, before becoming a freelance broadcaster and writer. From there, his work in horticultural journalism grew and the publicist’s notes on his ninth novel, Bring Me Home, reads like stepping stones on a walk of gardening fame. He has presented some of the most popular gardening TV shows including How to be a Gardener, Ground Force and Gardeners’ World as well as British Isles: A Natural History. He’s been twice named Gardening Writer of the Year, voted, for four successive years, the Television Personality of the Year, and been given a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Garden Writers’ Guild.
Then there’s the ITV chat show, The Alan Titchmarsh Show, as well as regular columns in national newspapers and magazines. He has written 40 gardening books and eight best-selling novels — which have all made The Sunday Times Bestsellers List — and has just released his ninth. All crowned with an MBE in the millennium New Year’s Honours List and the Victoria Medal of Honour, the Royal Horticultural Society’s highest award.
But ask him what his highlights are from the last 50 years and it is still that emotional, tangible response to the earth and growing that is at the top of his list.
‘Keeping interested in horticulture has been great,’ continues Alan. ‘I’m never happier than when I’m in the garden pottering about and that’s at the root of it all, if you pardon the pun. Making a garden for Nelson Mandela was a career high, but also spreading the word and seeing my interest rub off on people.’
Alan is now running a high-profile campaign with the Royal Horticultural Society to encourage more people to think of horticulture as a career.
‘This is something I have been passionate about since I left school and went into horticulture 50 years ago this year,’ says Alan. ‘Partly it’s a generational thing — there is a greater disconnect between younger people today and the outdoors since much of work involves screens and computerisation so that land management is not an obvious priority, but it should be. The land systems used, land management and land production is just as important now, if not more so. It is also joyful to do and, if you talk to anyone at Writtle College, they are fully committed and stimulated by it and care about it. There are a great diversity of jobs that exist — more than 60 branches and avenues to horticulture. The campaign is about making people aware of the opportunities. There’s a popular misconception that horticulture is just about mowing and weeding until you die.’
The 64-year-old adds: ‘Horticulture is the most important thing really. People imagine horticulture is all about hanging baskets and window boxes, they don’t make the connection that horticulture makes most of their food. My particular angle is beauty and the spiritual aspect of a beautiful garden, but it takes many forms.’
While journalism is clearly secondary, it is key to being able to pass on this passion that has so enriched his life.
‘I’ve had 50 years in horticulture and obviously journalism and writing have been a large part of that. Gardening was my first love, but the performance aspect has always interested me — putting over my enthusiasm and passion, stimulating knowledge rather than people being baffled by the mystique of gardening, and obviously to share my interest in cultivation.’
This year, the production company behind Alan’s shows Love Your Garden and Britain’s Best Gardens has contacted Writtle College to see if they could find students who have the credentials — bountiful ideas, plant knowledge and not to mention sheer brawn — to become horticultural researchers/runners. This potentially life-changing opportunity has just been given to a trio of students. For them, it could be the first step on a career in horticulture media — in which Alan is surely the ultimate role model — and it all began with a degree in Essex.
Alan finished his address to those at his 13th Writtle College graduation ceremony last September, with the words: ‘Good luck and remember, when it comes to higher education, the only way is Essex!’ But he is keen for the county to be seen beyond the TOWIE stereotypes.
Laughing, he confesses: ‘I don’t watch it! That’s the classic stereotype really.
We need to push Essex more — places like Writtle College and Hyde Hall are the jewels in the county’s crown. We can make more of it.’
Get the book
Bring Me Home, Alan Titchmarsh’s ninth novel, was released on March 13 in hardback and eBook priced at £18.99.
About Writtle College
A partner of the University of Essex, Writtle College is a specialist provider of higher education and further education courses covering horticulture, design, equine and animal management, sport, agriculture and conservation. Founded in 1893, the college has trained generations of graduates who have made significant contributions to enhancing the environment and landscape. Today, the college combines its heritage with a cutting edge training approach to prepare its students for the future challenges in the specialist areas in which it operates.