Rural studies was taught by Ernest Wilberforce Heath...

5th December 2003 at 00:00
...a broad man with a bristly moustache, glasses and a head shaped like a bullet

Harry Rhodes was my form teacher at All Saints junior school in Ilkley, and my Sunday school teacher. He grew cacti, which I bought from him for sixpence a time at church and school bazaars and coffee mornings, and that's how I started gardening.

Mr Rhodes was the kindest man. He had a Roman nose and rimless spectacles and to me then, at the age of eight, he seemed as old as God, but he was probably in his thirties. Although you didn't mess with him, and he was no pushover, he personified the word "avuncular". He was the only male teacher who called the boys, and the girls, by their first names.

He had a wonderful way of teaching, which was bouncy and enthusiastic and engaging. He was the sort of teacher you found yourself listening to with your mouth open. He taught everything and he was in charge of the music for morning assembly. The partition between two classrooms would be slid back to make one big room, and as the headmistress, Miss E Hickinson, left her office to join us, Mr Rhodes would herald her arrival by lifting the needle of the gramophone on to a record of something like "Greensleeves" - or, if he was feeling mischievous, "The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba".

Miss Hickinson was a statuesque, rather austere lady with glasses, grey hair, an aloof expression and a mouth that turned down at the corners. I discovered when I tripped over and broke my leg in the playground that she was very kind. She sent me a large envelope full of schoolwork, but which also included some crayons and a letter, which read: "Try not to do too much, and enjoy the colouring."

By the age of 10 I'd decided I wanted to be a professional gardener. I toyed with the idea of acting, which I enjoyed as an amateur, but that would have been too much for my father, who was a classic northerner. Dad was a plumber. He hated gardening, but his father and grandfather were keen gardeners and so was Mum.

Having started with the cacti I bought from Mr Rhodes, which I kept on the windowsill in the loo at home, I graduated to growing more exciting things like spider plants and then geraniums. I bought packets of Mr Cuthbert's seeds from Woolworths with the money I earned from my paper round. I was quite good with nasturtiums and mesembryanthemums, which I planted in the back garden between Mum's hydrangeas (I never had a plot of my own). I soon found taking cuttings more thrilling than growing from seed, and I remember giving Mr Rhodes some from time to time.

School palled after I failed the 11-plus and went to Ilkley county secondary, but I had one term in the first year of what was called rural studies. It included gardening, and was taught by a burly man with the unforgettable name of Ernest Wilberforce Heath. He was broad with a bristly moustache, glasses and a head shaped like a bullet. He had a piece of willow bound at both ends with sticky tape and he used to whack it down so hard on the desk if you were talking that you would spring back thinking he was going to hit you - but he never did.

Unfortunately, because I was in the A stream I had only one term of rural studies, which I regret. It's desperately important for children to be taught gardening and to learn to value the countryside and nature.

I didn't enjoy school after the age of 11 because I seemed to be funnelling more and more towards subjects I wasn't keen on or good at. My reports said things like: "Alan tries; what a shame he doesn't always achieve his full potential." Art was my strong subject and I took my art O-level a year early, passed and then left at 15 to do an apprenticeship. On my first day I knew I'd made the right choice. I couldn't believe I was getting paid for doing something I loved so much.

Gardener and television presenter Alan Titchmarsh was talking to Pamela Coleman


1949 Born Ilkley, Yorkshire

1954-64 Attends Ilkley new county infants' school, All Saints junior school and Ilkley county secondary school

1964-68 First job as an apprentice gardener for Ilkley council parks department

1968-69 Herts college of agriculture

1985 Gold medal at Chelsea Flower Show

1996-2002 Presents BBC2's Gardeners' World programme

1997-2002 Presents BBC1's Ground Force

1998 First novel, Mr MacGregor, published. Followed by Animal Instincts (2000) and Only Dad (2001)

1999 Awarded MBE

2002 Autobiography, Trowel and Error

November 2003 Six-part series for BBC2, The Royal Gardeners

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