MORE than 100 people filled St Paul’s church in Winchester for ‘An Evening with Alan Titchmarsh’ last Thursday, 23rd March.

In a fascinating and, at times, deeply moving interview with Winchester resident and former BBC Deputy Director General, Mark Byford, the renowned gardener, broadcaster and novelist spoke about his life, his inspirations and his loves.

The evening was organised by the Friends of St Matthew with St Paul and raised more than £1,000 to support the preservation of the two church buildings in the parish.

"Award winning gardener, acclaimed horticulturalist, successful radio and television presenter, best selling novelist and Chancellor of the University of Winchester’, how did he find the time to do them all?" Mr Byford asked. “Sleeping well,” Alan Titchmarsh replied.

He said the secret to being a good gardener was ‘a sense of feeling’. Yes, understanding plants, shrubs and flowers, was important. So, too, was an appreciation of the seasons. But a feeling for cultivation and growth and a passion for nurturing new life were critical. His favourite shrub or flower depended on the time of year, he said. Daffodils were his current favourite.

Born in Yorkshire in 1949, he spoke lovingly about his parents, a plumber and a textile worker, who instilled good manners. His Granddad Hardisty would take him to his allotment when he was a toddler and when he left school with just one O level in Art, he became an apprentice gardener with the local council.

He studied Horticulture at a local Technical College and, eventually, headed to Kew Gardens, where he took a diploma and became a staff trainer.

He spoke about his break into television, becoming the resident gardening expert on the BBC programmes, Nationwide and Breakfast Time, and presenting the Chelsea Flower Show for more than 30 years.

In 1997, he was catapulted to the status of national treasure with the hugely successful make over programme ‘Ground Force’, which he presented for more than five years and regularly achieved up to twelve million viewers. He spoke about the seminal moment meeting Nelson Mandela, after the team transformed his garden in Qunu in South Africa and how the President told him he nurtured two tomato plants whilst being in prison, which gave him a sense of new life, new beginning and hope.

The successful author of more than 50 gardening books, and now ten best selling novels, he said he loved writing and being alone as an antidote to his hectic life. One of his proudest moments was receiving the Victoria Medal, the highest accolade of the Royal Horticulture Society, in 2004. At his inauguration as Chancellor of the University of Winchester, he spoke about students realising their full potential and pursuing their passions. “I’ve always believed that our various genetic make-up means each and everyone of us is best at something – the lucky ones are those who find out what that something is, and who pursue it with vigour and delight. The world is full of people telling us we can’t – I know, I’ve met them – but seek out those who when you say, ‘I can’t’, say, ‘Oh yes, you can’. I now want to be one of those people.”

Happily married for more than 40 years with two adult daughters and four grandchildren, he emphasised the importance of regular communication within families and the pivotal role of the dining table and evening meal times in bringing family members together.

Finally, he spoke about his own faith as an Anglican, which he said, he held firmly but quietly. After the hour-long interview, Alan mingled with the audience over drinks and signed autographs for all who asked, before returning to his home in Holybourne near Alton, where a where he has lived for more than 30 years.