Alan Titchmarsh on the Queen’s secret gardens

On Christmas Day on ITV, immediately after The Queen’s Speech, Alan Titchmarsh will take you on the first of two tours of Her Majesty’s private domain.

It was King George III who purchased ‘Buckingham House’ in 1762 for the grand sum of £28,000. Queen Victoria added the east front which presents itself to The Mall, and for the last 150 years or more Buckingham Palace has been the principal London residence of the sovereign and a symbol of British constitutional power.

But the palace’s greatest secret lies behind those tall brick walls that enclose 39 acres of garden, including a four-acre lake and an unrivalled collection of trees and shrubs, including more than 30 varieties of mulberry – a throwback to the days when King James I endeavoured to kick-start a British silk industry. He failed; rumour has it because the French (who had something of a monopoly when it came to silk production) advised him to plant the wrong sort of mulberry.

In addition to trees planted by Kings and Queens, Princes and Princesses, there are 350 different species of wild flower growing there – including a rare wild orchid not seen in London for a century – eighty-odd birds, countless fungi, invertebrates and mammals, all enjoying the sequestered confines of a unique metropolitan oasis.

And that’s exactly what the garden is, thanks in the main to Her Majesty’s insistence that the grounds are run in a responsible and sustainable way. All tree prunings and sawn up logs are stacked to make a home for fungi and small mammals. Roses are sprayed with garlic solution in preference to more harmful pesticides, and the manure from the royal mews (rather delicately referred to as ‘arisings’) is used to enrich the beds and borders.

He was allowed to help arrange the Christmas flowers in the fireplace of the White Drawing Room before Her Majesty handed out presents to her staff, and in the palace kitchens, way below the State Rooms, he enjoyed a taste of the royal mulberry crumble and the honey produced from the hives that stand on the island in the lake.

Alan helped replant a flowerbed and joined one of the gardeners as he put together a seasonal posy for The Queen’s desk – each Monday the gardeners prepare this little ‘snapshot’ of half a dozen different flowers that are in season at that particular time. Their efforts are appreciated.

They were given access to film everything from compost heaps to the sandpit the royal children used to play in, and in the company of the affable Gardens Manager Mark Lane and his deputy Claire Midgley-Adam he learned much about the way the gardens are run and the importance of the annual garden parties which give the team of gardeners something to work to.

The lack of disturbance, compared with the surrounding London parks, which are overrun by pedestrians, makes the Palace gardens a real haven. The Queen’s dogs may appear every couple of hours, being walked by a footman, but they have little or no effect on the peace that otherwise pervades the sovereign’s sanctuary during her working week.

‘The Queen’s Garden’ is on ITV on Christmas Day immediately after The Queen’s Christmas Broadcast.

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