Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II remembered by Alan Titchmarsh
Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II remembered by Alan Titchmarsh
Image: DAVID BEBBER/AFP via Getty Images
My encounters with The Queen over the years were many and varied. We planted a palm tree together to celebrate the centenary of the opening to the public of Osborne House on the Isle of Wight – once the home of Queen Victoria, and given to the nation after her death by King Edward VII. I say ‘we’ and indeed Her Majesty did throw a couple of spadefuls of earth in the direction of the plant, but she was then very happy to hand over the implement and let me complete the operation, smiling wryly and indicating with a raise of her arm my expertise to the surrounding spectators who broke into a round of applause.
Our very first encounter was slightly more nerve-wracking. I had designed a ‘Country Kitchen Garden’ at Chelsea Flower Show in 1985 and on the day of the royal visit – the Monday of Chelsea week – I stood nervously by my plot wearing, for some reason I now cannot fathom, a maroon and black striped blazer I had found in a junk shop, a white shirt, yellow bow tie and white trousers.
I thought it unlikely that Her Majesty would be shown my modest garden, replete with flower borders, a miniature orchard underplanted with wild flowers, a rill fed by water spilling out of an old village pump, and vegetables in neat rows either side of a brick path. I was mistaken. Just as I assumed she would be whisked past my creation the president of the society ushered The Queen across the wide expanse of tarmac and told her my name. For the first time I found myself on the receiving end of that famous smile and led Her Majesty forward to examine my handiwork. She seemed genuinely interested and mentioned my “clipped ilex”. Surprise number one: The Queen used the Latin name for holly. Then her gaze turned towards my vegetables. “Your onions are rather small” she remarked. I found myself at a loss for an excuse. I need not have worried. With little delay she added “I like them small; when they’re large they taste of nothing at all.”
Over the next thirty-odd years my encounters with the sovereign might have kept me on my mettle but they were never less than enjoyable. I had the pleasure of sitting next to her at lunch on a couple of occasions and found her conversation to be relaxed, surprisingly opinionated and well laced with humour. During her lifetime I adhered to the maxim that private conversations with Her Majesty remained private. Only now does it seem appropriate to reflect on some of her likes and dislikes.
Prince Philip’s gardening projects, for instance, did not always meet with her approval. I remember her describing the ‘water feature’ he was creating among trees to the south west of Balmoral Castle as “not my sort of gardening”.
“What sort of gardening is that ma’am?” I enquired.
“The sort that uses a bull-dozer” she replied.
Alan Titchmarsh talks with Queen Elizabeth II as they attend day 3 of the Royal Windsor Horse Show on May 14, 2010 in Windsor, England. Image by Indigo/Getty Images
The Queen’s preference was for posies rather than bouquets. When in residence during the week at Buckingham Palace, the gardeners would send up a fresh posy of flowers for her desk every Monday on her return from Windsor Castle. She loved primroses, lily-of-the-valley and other modest blooms far more than elaborate exotics; something that speaks volumes about her personality.
Having addressed the Sandringham Women’s Institute Annual General Meeting in January 2000, I asked Her Majesty if she found her Norfolk garden rather dull in winter. She indicated otherwise. “I like the witch hazels” she said “though they are now so tall I have to jump up to smell them”, at which point she did a little jump in the air to demonstrate. On my return home I ordered half a dozen young plants to be dispatched to Sandringham and received a letter of thanks for my trouble.
On her accession in 1952 The Queen appointed Prince Philip to be the Ranger of Windsor Great Park, and relied upon him to take charge of new plantings there and on the other royal estates at Balmoral and Sandringham. Having sent Her Majesty a copy of my book Royal Gardeners in 2003, and received thanks and a long letter in reply from Prince Philip explaining those projects he had undertaken which I had somehow omitted to mention: among them an oak avenue in the Home Park at Windsor, the re-designing of the East Terrace at the castle, the extension of the Lime Avenue at Sandringham to mark The Queen’s Coronation along with an avenue of copper beeches, I sent Her Majesty a copy of my next royal book The Queen’s Houses in 2014. I imagined that, on receipt, most books, including my own, were flipped through and then passed on. But when we next met The Queen said “I’m reading your book”.
“Which one?” I asked.
“The one about my houses” she replied. “I’m reading about Sandringham. I didn’t know all that. Fascinating.” I blush to repeat the compliment, but it perfectly illustrates The Queen’s kindness and her willingness to put every one she met at ease.
The garden at Buckingham Palace, grand though it is, is very much an outdoor ‘function room’. The estates at Windsor, Sandringham and Balmoral are more extensive and, along with The Queen’s Green Canopy initiative, readily demonstrate the commitment of Queen Elizabeth II and her consort Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, to the greening of the planet. I feel privileged to have met them both and enjoyed, at first hand, their company, their conversation, their good humour and their devotion to the landscape they loved.
The Royal Princesses Elizabeth (Elizabeth II) and Margaret (1930 - 2002) with a Pembroke Welsh Corgi dog in their garden at the Royal Lodge in Windsor Great Park, UK, April 1940. Image by Lisa Sheridan/Studio Lisa/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Queen Elizabeth II of England at Balmoral Castle with one of her Corgis, 28 September 1952. Image; Bettmann Archive/Getty Images