Alan Titchmarsh starts a new chapter at the university which helped my career to bloom

My TV career started as a result of what I hope was a barn-storming address to the students of King Alfred's College of Education in 1976.

Afterwards, I was invited to appear on that evening's edition of Southern ITV's "Day by Day" regional news show to explain myself.

As Deputy President of NUS, I was leading a campaign to keep teacher-training colleges open. The Government cited a falling birth-rate as a good reason to shut some, and save money; we cited the chance to improve the teacher-pupil ratio by keeping them open and maintaining the number of teacher-training graduates.

ITV News presenter Alastair Stewart in his university days. Credit: Alastair Stewart

A few days later, I got a letter of thanks from Southern ITV; it included my expenses and a job offer. The rest, as they say, is history.

This morning, I returned to the same campus; now it is the University of Winchester, founded upon and steeped in the same traditions of that greatest of all teacher training colleges but now offering many other degree courses - not least an especially fine media studies department.

There was a glorious circularity for my reason to be there today: my dear friend, and brilliant fellow broadcaster, Alan Titchmarsh was to be installed as the new Chancellor.

He spoke powerfully and movingly of his own story: a Yorkshire lad, who left school with one 'O Level'; how he'd met and fallen in love with his wife, Allison, when both were young members of the Ilkley Operatic Society and how they still sing together, when they can; how he'd walked out of his front door, 'spade in hand', hoping for the best.

Alan Titchmarsh is installed as the new Chancellor at the University of Winchester. Credit: Alastair Stewart

It was, however, when he went to Kew Gardens that 'the doors of education were thrown open' to him. He proved so good, he ended up teaching other teachers.

As with the soil, learning was to draw him into an enduring love affair: it made today very special to him - 'I'm just a Yorkshire lad who's taken 51 years to get to University'.

Once stardom had enveloped him, all manner of opportunities and, yes, riches, came his way.

But he mentioned one opportunity that humbled and delighted him, in equal measure: in 1999, he was invited to craft a garden for Nelson Mandela as part of the BBC's 'Ground Force' series. They got on (why doesn't that surprise me?) and they talked, at length.

Today, he quoted Mandela, with pride and passion: 'Education is the most powerful weapon for change in the world'.

Alastair with Alan Titchmarsh and Vice Chancellor Prof Joy Carter. Credit: Alastair Stewart

He observed that, 'whilst 80% of young people in the city of Winchester go on to higher education, only 10% do so in Southampton'. He saw that as a wrong in need of righting.

This was the University my daughter Clemmie attended. She turned down a place to read music at Bristol, having fallen in love with teaching whilst doing a term as a teaching-assistant at her old prep' school during her 'gap-year'. She took a 1st in English and Education, and a PGCE. She is now, at the age of 30, a Headmistress.

Some years ago, she joined a school in 'special measures', as part of the team recruited to sort it out.

The kids had little going for them - it was an Army town and many of the dads were away, a lot of the time, and facing real danger; it wasn't a rich environment.

As part of a concerted effort to improve the school, the children's education and to give them some fun, she set about making a garden for, and with, them.

Alastair Stewart's daughter Clemmie also attended the University of Winchester. Credit: Alastair Stewart

She wrote to Alan to ask for his support; he sent back a signed book - 'here are some ideas, Clem' - and wished them well.


But when the garden was competed, Alan agreed to turn up and open it. Jaws dropped, smiles enveloped young faces, parents swooned.

That's my daughter; that's Alan Titchmarsh.

Old 'green-fingers' will be no mere ceremonial Chancellor, draped in his striking gold and purple robes; before us was a man as much on a mission as that lad, leaving home some years ago, to embark on life's challenge - equipped with just a spade and a single 'O' level.