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Unearthing royal secrets; Hannah Stephenson finds Alan Titchmarsh mixing in very illustrious circles.

Byline: Hannah Stephenson

ALAN Titchmarsh has been a busy bee since leaving Gardeners' World - in fact,he's got himself into a rather regal position in his new project, visiting royal gardens and their gardeners all over Britain.

He gained access to some of the most famous sites,from Balmoral to Highgrove,Sandringham to Hampton Court and Buckingham Palace,enjoying guided tours with the gardeners who so lovingly tend them all year round.

The project has resulted in a detailed book,Royal Gardeners,and the accompanying BBC2 series, which begins on November 11. Most of the gardens featured are accessible to the public when the royals are not in residence,he points out.

So, were the reany favourites for him?

``I've different favourites for different things.Balmoral's got the best conservatory I've ever seen and a great vegetable garden,''he says.

``There's a lovely stream garden at Sandringham. Highgrove is wonderfully rich and the kind of garden you could aspire to because it's more attainable in that it's on a slightly smaller scale and the most modern and informed in its construction.

``The parkland around Windsor is grand and in terms of showing an active period in British history, Hampton Court is hard to beat in terms of its variety. You can't pin one down. They all offer different things.''

And what of Buckingham Palace? ``It's a function area really. A very large lawn,quite a pleasant lake and a big herbaceous border.''

While he didn't interview the Prince of Wales for the programme, he has had several visits to Highgrove -which is not open to the public -where the Prince showed him round.

``No pesticides, weed killers or artificial fertilisers are used anywhere on his estate. The ground is improved with compost made by recycling garden rubbish,birds are fed,nest boxes have been put up and piles of rotting logs are left in the woods for beetles and other wildlife. So committed has the Prince become to the organic way of life that there's even a reed-bed sewage treatment plant.''

Titchmarsh learned a lot of history on his travels and notes that royal gardens have changed with the times.``A lot of royal gardens were made as symbols of power,but the monarchy doesn't need symbols of power nowadays. It would be unseemly for it to do so.

``If you sell your own home you know that the new owners are going to knock it about a bit, however hard you worked to make it perfect.It's exactly the same with royal palaces -only more so.''

Surprisingly,he didn't have any problems with access. Quite the opposite,he says,as royals happily opened their doors for him and the camera crew.``They (thegardeners) were all quite different and often they didn't know each other because one's working in high season when the other's low season,''he says.

``One of the heartening things about the royal gardeners was their discretion. They would tell you quietly little stories for your own delectation,but only for you. They wouldn't do it on camera. They were very loyal to their bosses.''

Monarchs have had a huge influence on the way gardens developed and changed over the centuries.

``When William and Mary came to Hampton Court they had no intention of keeping Henry VIII's garden. It was old-fashioned,boring and deadly, so they swept it away and put their new one out.

``There was a huge influx of plants in the Victorian period, while the parks and parklands came in during the time of the Georgians, who were proud of their landscapes.It's so much more pleasurable to look on a garden you visit and understand why it is the way it is and how it got there.''

Titchmarsh and his team were understandably prevented from filming certain bits of gardens which are for family use only, such as the Queen's private garden area at Windsor. ``We didn't film the Queen's sun lounger -wicker,floral chintz,''he confides.

Royal Gardeners,by Alan Titchmarsh, is published by BBC Books,price pounds 25.
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Daily Post (Liverpool, England)
Date:Nov 8, 2003
Words:677
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