Alan Titchmarsh on his particular connection to Essex
PUBLISHED: 13:56 15 March 2018 | UPDATED: 14:01 15 March 2018
Tom Watkins Photo / 2017
Alan Titchmarsh is one of the UK's favourite gardening presenters and historical enthusiasts. Here he talks to Denise Marshall about revealing the latest Secrets of the National Trust and his pride over the special part of Essex that bears his name
Alan Titchmarsh quickly became a household name in the late 1990s when BBC1’s outdoor makeover show Ground Force hit our screens. Since then his career has grown far beyond horticulture, but the established broadcaster remains refreshingly humble.
This spring he will be on our TV screens again, presenting a second season of Secrets of the National Trust. I caught up with Alan in one of the National Trust’s London residences, Fenton House; a surprisingly peaceful Georgian style haven in the centre of bustling Hampstead, perched at the top of Holly Hill.
Friendly volunteers are tending to the grounds of the former merchant’s home, left by the last resident, Lady Binning, in 1952.
It is indeed the most fitting location to catch up with the country’s most famous gardener who is delighted that Secrets of the National Trust, combining his passions of landscape and property, has been so enthusiastically received. Scheduled to air on Channel 5 early this month, Alan was granted unprecedented access to more hidden passages and prized treasures across the UK.
Alan explains: ‘I was thrilled because we only did six episodes last year, and then we were asked for 12, so it must have gone down alright.’
Does he credit the ‘Downton effect’ for attracting more viewers? ‘Maybe. It’s something I do for pleasure anyway. My wife and I think we’ve got very boring when we settle down to dinner. It’s on a tray in front of Foyle’s War or Poirot.
‘Our kids call it old fogey television, but it’s nice to live in the past for a couple of hours. I share that curiosity about life the way it was, upstairs and down, and I know I’d be coming from a generation of men who worked the land.’
The latest series sees Jennie Bond visit Lavenham Guildhall near Sudbury, and Alan takes it as a huge compliment to lead a programme with so many high-profile names on board.
‘I was told people are clamouring to be on it,’ reveals Alan, a little incredulous, ‘the likes of Joan Bakewell, for example. I’m interested in art, architecture and old buildings anyway, so I took the attitude; you want to pay me too? Okay!’
An episode he was greatly moved by was filmed at the Southwell Workhouse in Nottinghamshire.
‘I was shocked at how inhumane we were in Victorian times,’ explains Alan. ‘I then discovered after it was a workhouse it was used as social housing, and that carried on until the 1970s. Talking to a woman who’d been there as a girl, with her siblings and mother all in one room, was frightening. She’s still angry.
‘Her father had left home, but the fact they weren’t allowed to play in the gardens, I couldn’t fathom. What harm is that doing to anybody? Kindness doesn’t cost the state any money.’
The much-loved presenter is also an avid viewer of recent ITV hit, Victoria.
‘I listen to the soundtrack most days. The episode on the Irish famine really brought it home to Victoria what was going on and that we all need to care for each other. Even today we have food banks. It’s not just Dickensian. Compassion doesn’t cost anything.’
Respected nationwide for his dedicated work ethic, Alan, 68, is in more demand than ever.
‘You expect the offers to ease off, but it’s very nice that they don’t,’ he smiles.
The recipient of four honorary degrees, Alan had a very close connection to Essex for over a decade as patron of Writtle University College, until 2016, and is returning this summer to talk about his experiences in the county.
‘I was patron of Writtle for 15 years, but last year they received university status. Three years ago I was made Chancellor of Winchester University, which is quite close to where I live, so I said I don’t think I can be chancellor for both.’
But Alan’s stamp is firmly embedded on the college. ‘I had a wonderful time at Writtle and there’s a building called The Titchmarsh Centre for Animal Care, so I’m still there. I’m rather thrilled by that. It’s in large letters, bit embarrassing really. All the rooms are called TC1, TC2 etc.’
Alan will be speaking at The Beth Chatto Gardens near Colchester on June 28 in a ticketed talk for the Education Trust founded by Beth Chatto OBE. Promising a night to remember with the finest in horticultural expertise, Alan will be focusing on his gardening experiences.
‘Beth is a great friend,’ he enthuses. ‘She’s getting on at 94 and she’s been a great mentor for many years. The plants are really used well.’
The scenery of Dedham Vale is a favourite Essex beauty spot for Alan. ‘In terms of landscape, Essex is just beautiful, with Constable Country and Coggeshall favourites of mine,’ adds Alan. Alan’s love for the land is also reflected in his passion for classical music and his work on Classic FM.
Another subject of interest is the Royal family and he admirably handled a prickly Duke of Edinburgh in a 90th birthday interview with absolute grace, attempting to tap into his softer side and highlight his reputation for modernising the monarchy as a hands-on father.
Family is something Alan is also keen to prioritise as a grandfather of four. ‘That’s the most difficult thing. My two daughters want me to be spending more time with them, so I’m in the process of making it better now.
‘I’ll never retire, but there are lots of things I want to do. We all struggle. The family/work balance for working parents is the same for me. Every year I’m determined to get it right.
‘I do feel a responsibility,’ he confirms. ‘You can’t go on television to engage people and be surprised when you have. I get asked about Ground Force every five minutes and I’m very grateful for Ground Force.
‘I hear stories from floor managers and people in the business about celebrities who become tricky to work with and I think, “please may that not be me”.
‘I remember Martin Scorsese being asked what a top Hollywood actor was really like and his reply was, “what would you be like if no one had said no to you for 40 years?”
‘I don’t want to get like that. You can be professional without being arsey.’
I think it’s safe to say there is little risk of Alan developing delusions of grandeur; he’s far too happy with a gardening fork in hand.
Find out more
Secrets of the National Trust airs on Channel 5 throughout March and into April