Matthew Biggs, of BBC Radio 4’s Gardeners’ Question Time, shares his garden cruise experiences…
What holiday memories stand out for you?
Visiting Singapore Botanic Gardens for the first time. I trained at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and am fascinated by colonial history.
So to visit one of Kew’s great colonial gardens, to see the orchid collection and some of the original rubber trees, is a memory that thrills.
How did you get interested in gardening?
I always worked in the garden at home, particularly in my teenage years, helping Mum to tidy the borders or Dad to mow the lawn but I was not wildly interested – I just liked being outside! However, I knew enough to feel that I was happy in that environment.
On leaving school at sixteen, I worked on the 13th floor of an office block and looked longingly at the gardeners’ mowing the lawns below. It was then I realised that I wanted to work outside and discovered all of the pleasures of gardening.
How did you get to be on the BBC’s Gardeners’ Question Time?
Purely by chance. I was working at BBC Gardeners’ World Live Show at the NEC, where Gardeners’ Question Time was being recorded. I knew several of the panellists, chatted to them, and inevitably got to know the producers.
At the end of the show, I went to see the producer with some broadcast ideas of my own, at which point he asked me, “Do you fancy a go on ‘Gardeners’ Question Time”? Shocked and stunned, I said “yes”, survived the first show and the rest is history! Still can’t believe it!
You were just on an Arctic Circle cruise with Fred. Olsen Cruise Line. What were the gardens like there?
Cruising is a wonderful education. I had not registered that the Arctic is not covered in snow and ice all year round. There are large areas where, for a few months, the snow melts and the sun shines ‘24/7’, creating a short, intense growing period were the displays of wild flowers and lush grass is magnificent!
One of the highlights was visiting the Arctic Alpine Botanical Garden at the University of Tromsø, the most northerly Botanical Gardens in the world, where alpines from around the globe are grown – from the Andes to the Alps and Drakensburg Mountains.
It is an incredible sight – the world of alpines in four acres of rock! As you would imagine, there are some amazing flowers!
Were you leading a group or giving lectures on that cruise?
I was leading a group. This is something I have done for over 20 years and have had the pleasure of travelling, mostly with Fred. Olsen Cruises from New Zealand to China, Indonesia, the Caribbean, Russia, the Baltic and the Mediterranean and Canary Islands and Amazon – a world filled with flowers! Fantastic!
Do you have a favourite destination to visit on a cruise?
Barbados for its amazing gardens, particularly Anthony Huntes Garden, a wonderful character who has created one of the great extravaganzas of the floral world.
What was it like being a celebrity on board the Balmoral? Do you have any anecdotes for us about life on board?
I don’t feel like a celebrity – just a very fortunate gardener. I am still the same bloke that used to pick up litter every day for Leicester City’s Parks Department and certainly hope I haven’t changed, even though the job has!
But I do overhear quite a few ‘funnies’: the elderly male still polishing his chat up lines with a beautiful young waitress “You have beautiful teeth…just like Stonehenge” – no wonder he was single!
And I overheard at the enquiries desk, “The water in the swimming pool, is it sea water or fresh”? “It is sea water, madam”, said the ever patient member of staff. “Ahh, that’s why it’s so choppy, then”.
Do you find gardening a common theme of interest on cruises?
I find that so many people are interested in gardening, even if they don’t have their own garden.
Themed cruises are an excellent way of meeting people; you can sit next to someone in one of the special interest groups and know you have gardening in common – you instantly have a talking point. “So, what is your garden like…” and away they go!
Do you enjoy cruising or do you find it confining compared to being out in your garden?
No more than three days at sea for me, then it starts to become a challenge – I did once cross the Atlantic but felt totally claustrophobic by the end of the trip. Overall, the journey is always interesting, especially if we see marine life.
If you could choose one cruise itinerary to go on, what would it be?
I would love to travel up the Orinoco River in Venezuela to see the plants and Angel Falls.
Do you think cruise ships could have gardens or herb gardens?
I think that they are a great idea! Plants are so much part of our life and natural environment that most people feel happier and they instil a sense of calm.
It would certainly make life interesting to have a living classroom; we could cover horticulture, design, turf care (beloved by some, even if they are not interested in gardening!) and of course – plantsman-ship!
For more information about Fred. Olsen’s themed cruises call 0800 0355 150 or visit fredolsencruises.com
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