The arrangement was, and still is, that I work from home, which is about half an hour from Alan's house. We communicate via a system of boxes now which we exchange once a week and which are growing with the vast amount of correspondence Alan receives from four-year-olds to 90-year-olds. I sometimes feel that I am handling an unofficial fan club, yet one of my favourite aspects of the job is the warmth that comes through in the letters - Alan is so very much loved and I like being the go-between. The letters usually begin "Dear Alan, I hope you don't mind my calling you Alan but I feel like you are a friend..." People also send him presents, silk handkerchiefs from old ladies, that sort of thing - I think he brings out the mothering instinct in women regardless of their age.
We also get tongue-in-cheek letters with the words "You have always been a pin-up of mine", nowadays with a PS from the husband addressed to Charlie Dimmock saying gardening took on a new meaning for him since she arrived. Of course people also write in their hundreds requesting a Ground Force make-over, but there are quite a few letters of criticism from strict gardeners who disapprove of Alan's use of shingle or mirrors which might confuse dickie birds.
We even got a letter from a woman claiming that she had injured herself when trying to step over her Step-Over apple tree and nearly needed the attention of a specialist. Another letter came from a man who couldn't understand why the council wouldn't take away his 12ft conifer which he had stuck into a wheelie bin.
Packages of diseased plant or insect samples which people are keen for Alan to identify also regularly arrive and have to be handled with care, for after six weeks in the post the contents can have transformed into a soggy mess. There are occasions when I will find just the leg of an insect stuck under a piece of Sellotape which makes me wonder where the rest of the creature is. But I will try my best to help solve their problems with the aid of my Plant Search or Name That Rose books.
Gardening is Alan's form of relaxation and he writes his novels in the Far Pavilion, a little chalet in his garden. I've often gone round only to find that he is busy in his garden. I laugh at the number of people who casually say, "Oh, you work for Alan Titchmarsh, would he come and have a look at my garden?" - everyone seems to want a bit of him. Of course Alan has seen my garden, but only as a friend. I am a flower gardener myself; I may not be good on Latin names but I know what I like.
Alan's wife isn't a gardener herself but she backs him up to the hilt and he in turn tries to get home at night from wherever he is to be with the family. He has a terrific sense of humour, very silly and very English, which he shares with Alison. They both met through amateur dramatics and still put on hilarious shows to raise money for charity involving sketches, singing and dancing. It's all very much in the vein of classic English review comedy, particularly when Alan puts on false teeth and becomes a Dick Emery character.
He really is a superb chap and I regard him as a friend. Apart from giving me the odd lettuce, Alan also forwards his copy of Gardener's World. I haven't had the heart to tell him I already subscribe.
If you are in the public eye you have very little time for yourself and television is especially demanding - you have to be on call 24 hours a day so it's very difficult to escape. Alan keeps his own diary and organises a lot of his life himself and although I still receive the odd late fax or phone call, in the main I've been very lucky. I don't mind working on my own because each day is so varied, but if I begin to feel bogged down I will go out into the garden and relax by watching the blackbirds feeding their young.