Passed/Failed: An education in the life of Toby Buckland, presenter of BBC2's 'Gardeners World'

'My teachers were loving'
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The Independent Online

Toby Buckland, 40, took over from Monty Don as the main presenter of Gardeners' World. Previous programmes include Real Wrecksand Home Front in the Garden. His latest book, Gardeners' World Practical Gardening Handbook, has just been released.

My great-grandfather was an upstanding member of the community and a headmaster, but I discovered a couple of years ago that his son – my grandfather – was illegitimate. It was a family secret that he'd had a liaison with the school cleaner at the Upper Primary School in Dawlish, Devon. It was opposite the house where I now live and was the first school I went to. To think what had been going on inside the walls where I used to hang my coat and lunch! My peg had an aircraft sticker on it. My father might have had the same peg; he went there too. My grandfather didn't go to school, but he was privately taught to read and write by my great-grandfather and he was able to progress as a skilled gardener at the dower house of Luscombe Castle.

I then went to Lower Primary School, a stone's throw away, separated by an abattoir. We used to watch the cows go in; they never came out and blood used to run down the road. There was an alley here where kids who didn't go to school had been taught in Victorian times.

When I was at Westcliff Junior School, it was a grey time, with the looming threat of nuclear war. The Seventies were a time of great change: strikes and turmoil. But the teachers were very loving and very caring. There was a nature club; we'd look at snails and if you found a ladybird, you put it in a jar.

Dawlish Comprehensive, which is now Community College, was quite scary at first; the fifth-years were all punks and there was no dress code or uniform. I used to enjoy the craft lessons. The girls did cookery and sewing and we did manly stuff: die-casting steel. We'd make moulds and pour in molten steel. We didn't read books but had them read – well read – by the teacher. He made a performance out of packing the tobacco into his pipe, which added to the tension in Tom Sawyer and Of Mice and Men.

I was good at maths but, because of the timetable, I could never be in a high group as my English was not good enough. There were three levels: people took O-levels or CSEs or they had a Certificate of Attendance. I got two O-levels and five CSEs.

I was working in nurseries. I'd always been doing gardening: my uncle Bob was very keen and we'd go collecting seaweed after storms and put it under his potatoes. The single best qualification that I have is the National Certificate in horticulture: first on day release, then a year-long course at Bicton College in Budleigh Salterton. I learnt about so much there and was awarded the title of best practical student.

Then I did an HND in amenity horticulture (they were trying to be more scientific and used a lot of words like "amenity"). It was a three-year course at Hadlow College in Kent and I got a distinction. In the middle year, I worked at the Botanic Garden in Cambridge, which was a terrific experience, and I even went back later as a woodlands supervisor.

I enjoyed being at school, but it did seem like a distraction from real life. I suppose that being held back at school and not making the most of it catapulted me forward when I left. It was like letting go an elastic band.