Fruitful Pursuits

Liz Nicholls

All Areas

As August arrives, Katie Kingsley serves up three dishes which make the most of the flavours and textures of the height of summer.

Plum and almond loaf

A simple, pretty little number. Great when you don’t have much time on your hands but still fancy something a bit special (and plums are at their best this time of year).

Heat oven to 160°C and grease and line a 900g/2lb loaf tin with baking paper. Take a large bowl and add 150g of self raising flour, 150g of golden caster sugar, 100g of ground almonds, 175g of softened unsalted butter, three eggs, ½ tsp of almond extract and pinch of salt. Use an electric mixer to beat together well, for about five minutes until very light and fluffy. Stone and slice three ripe plums then stir through the mix before spooning into your tin and baking for 1 hour 15 to 1 hour 30 minutes, when a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean. Let cake cool in tin before removing onto a wire rack. Warm three tbsp of plum jam in a small pan and brush over the top of the loaf. Stone and slice two more ripe plums and lay atop the cake then brush liberally with more jam and sprinkle with toasted flaked almonds.

Harissa and sweet pepper chicken with spiked couscous

Save this one for a cooler day; it’s great mid-week but also special enough for Friday night. Just double everything to serve four, and the kids will love this, too!

Heat two tablespoons of oil in a wide-bottomed pan and sauté a chopped onion before adding three sliced red peppers, six halved boneless, skinless chicken thighs and three or four minced garlic cloves. Once the chicken has browned, mix together two teaspoon of harissa paste with 150ml of water and add to the chicken mix. Once simmering, cover and cook for about 30 minutes. Carefully remove the chicken and blend the sauce with a hand blender, or in a food processor, until smooth. Return the chicken to the sauce and cook for a further 10-15 minutes until the sauce has thickened. I like to add a knob of butter and check seasoning at this point while I prepare the couscous. Cook the couscous, according to packet instructions then fluff up, adding lemon juice to taste. Fry a tin of drained chickpeas in a little oil until golden then add ½ tsp each of ground cinnamon and ground cumin until fragrant. Add the spiced chickpeas to your couscous and scatter with toasted flaked almonds and fresh parsley, serving alongside the harissa chicken.

End of summer tomato fritters

These I believe are a speciality in Santorini (known there as keftedes) where sweet ripe tomatoes are a plenty. They are a great way to showcase beautiful tomatoes where maybe you are lucky enough to grow them and find yourself in abundance, but if not try to use the best quality you can find as it really will make a difference. Just as good simply dipped into tzatziki for a snack as they are sandwiched between toasted sourdough and an oozy poached egg for breakfast. Roughly chop 1kg of good quality ripe tomatoes and drain away the juice over a sieve then transfer the flesh to a large bowl. Grate two brown onions and 1 small courgette then squeeze out the moisture before adding to the bowl with 200g of plain flour, a bunch of finely chopped basil, 1 tbsp of olive oil and season generously.

Mix everything together until well combined and heat rapeseed oil in a saucepan to very hot. You will know when the oil is ready by dropping in a pea-sized dollop of mixture, it should sink but then rise to the surface bubbling. Use two tablespoons to carefully dollop bite-sized spoonfuls of the mixture into the oil being careful not to overcrowd the pan (I did about three at once). If your mixture breaks up, add more flour and mix again well before frying more. The fritters will take two or three minutes to cook through, if still raw, inside then turn down the oil and cook for longer, you should have a crisp shell and perfectly cooked centre. Drain on kitchen paper before serving with an extra sprinkle of salt.

Full Floella

Liz Nicholls

All Areas

Liz Nicholls chats to Baroness Floella Benjamin, OBE

Q. Hello Floella! I know you love to write – do you have any tips for our readers who might like to write a short story and don’t know where to start?
“Yes, firstly, don’t get it right, get it written! You can always go back and change or chuck it later, after all. You might not know where to start, but once you start to inhabit that world you’ve created, the imagination will help you find a way. Also: use your experiences. Children are wonderful natural writers because they’re seeing things for the first time. So, remember the innocence of when you saw the moon for the first time, a river, a butterfly, rabbit! I always like writing with pen and paper – you feel your hand move across the page which is wonderful. Don’t tell yourself you can’t do it! You can!”

Q. You love to sing, don’t you?
“I love singing! When I’m singing I go into orbit – I just float. My father was a jazz musician and I used to sing with his band. He used to say ‘feel the song, feel the words’. You don’t even have to have a great voice; Frank Sinatra didn’t, but he lived every word. As children, we used to sing the blues while we did the chores [bursts into song]! You feel lighter, and don’t notice you’re working! My mum used to sing Jim Reeves but she had a terrible voice. Every birthday she’d call up and sing Happy Birthday really badly, and now that she’s gone my brothers and sisters all take turns to sing it in her voice. And I used to love singing on Playschool!”

Q. You’ll be 68 this month; how do you stay so full of beans?
“I did my stretching this morning before I spoke to you; I like to stay supple. I ran ten consecutive marathons but one day my body gave up and said no more of that! I used to be president of the Ramblers’ Association and still walk a lot; for Easter I went to Cumbria and walked for nine hours a day – it’s my spiritual home. I’m not a gym-goer, but am always running up and down stairs, hoovering the stairs, carrying bags. I’m conscious I’m getting older and have to stay mentally and physically fit. I try to remember phone numbers and, when I’m giving a speech, I never have a script. We live in an age where you press button and it’s done, it’s instant. But the brain is like a muscle – you have to keep it fit. I might have a glass of champagne on special occasions but I’m not a big drinker. Apart from that, I keep smiling! It makes you resilient and strong.”

Q. What’s your secret to a long, happy marriage?
“I’m such a lucky girl, to be honest; I was born into a family full of love and left the bosom of my family to fall in love with a man who loved me so passionately. Keith and I were born a day apart and we’re made for each other. When I was ten I came to London from Trinidad and he came to London from Manchester. We lived in Chiswick, a few streets from each other and, for the next nine years we probably criss-crossed paths across London. Then we met in a theatre, 47 years ago, and have been together ever since. We have such a pure partnership; it makes us confident in ourselves.”

Q. How does it feel to be a baroness?
“I tell you something: life has a mysterious way of working out and I’m so grateful to be treated with such affection. We used to live in Anerley [in south London] and my mum really wanted to move to Beckenham – a very white, middle-class area with the best healthcare and best jumble sales! We went to go and view a house there and someone called the police to say black people were there, and they might steal the fixtures and fittings. Anyway, my mum bought that house and we lived there for 40 years. They’re both buried now, my parents, in Beckenham and, once I became a baroness, I visited them in the cemetery there. I told them my news and said ‘I’m now Baroness Benjamin of Beckenham – how about that for a turn-up?’ Everything that happens, you can use. Grab the positives and focus on what you can offer the world; it will reward you.”

Please visit www.floellabenjamin.com

Pruning raspberries

Cherry Butler

All Areas

Raspberries fall into two main categories; those that fruit in the summer and those that fruit later on into autumn. They are treated very differently with regards to pruning.

Summer raspberries

These will have finished fruiting now and it should be easy to distinguish the old canes from the new ones. All the fruited canes will start to die and can be pruned right down to the ground. The new ones will have been getting in your way while picking the fruit and can now be tied in to their support. I usually cut the tops off to a sensible height but you can bend them over if space allows. Any that are weak, overcrowding or just coming up in a silly place should be removed.

Autumn raspberries

If you get it right, the autumn type should begin to fruit as the summer ones finish! They continue until the frosts set in which can be up to Christmas. They do not generally need tying in to a support as they are not as tall as the summer ones but it may be helpful for ease of picking. Pruning involves cutting all the fruited canes to the ground in February after which time new canes will emerge from the ground for fruiting later on that season and off we go again…

Potash

Raspberries need their potash in the same way as tomatoes to encourage fruiting. Ash from the wood burning stove is an excellent source and can be applied directly or put into the compost bin for later use.

Horticultural consultancy

I can spend half a day in your garden identifying your plants and teaching you how to look after them. Pruning is a skill that takes years to learn as each plant has a different requirement.

Cathie’s garden army

If you have lost control of your garden completely we are here to help! A qualified team of horticulturists can transform your garden in a day following a consultancy. Please ask for details..Email cathiesgardeningschool@gmail.com, visit www.cathiesgardeningschool.co.uk and follow Cathie’s Gardening School on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

The gut and mental health

Round & About

All Areas

It is not a new concept that a ‘gut brain’ axis exists and I have touched on this subject before in previous columns.

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that regulates mood, appetite and sleep; when there are appropriate levels in the brain we feel relaxed and positive. This is the principle behind selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor drugs (SSRIs), to increase levels of serotonin available to the central nervous system. It is the gut, not the brain, however that is responsible for over 90% of total serotonin production.

In the gut, serotonin controls how ‘regular’ you are and it is the balance of the bacterial species in our gut that appears to play a significant role in the amount of serotonin produced. This might well explain not only why a significant relationship exists between individuals presenting with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and depression, but also why when doctors prescribe SSRIs for depression, those presenting with IBS often see improvements in digestive function.

A new study has found evidence in humans (not rodents as was the case until now) that our emotional responses, including anxiety and depression vary considerably depending on bacterial balance in the gut. The results not only suggest a strong link between the bacterial composition of our guts and feelings, but that the balance may change the physical structure of the brain by either growing the frontal cortex or shrinking the hippocampus – areas of the brain involved in problem solving, emotional regulation and consciousness. Understanding that gut microflora can play such a huge role in chemical balance of the brain is one thing, but that these microbes might initiate physical changes in the brain is another! This may well be why in clinical practice I often see clients’ overall mental health and wellbeing improve as we identify and eliminate key food and environmental sensitivities and support overall gut health.

Call Mark BSc (Hons) BA (Hons) mBANT CNHC on 01183 219533 or visit www.entirewellbeing.com

Lost & Found

Liz Nicholls

All Areas

Liz Nicholls chats to actor and musician Martine McCutcheon

Q. I know you’ve had a hard time with your health [Martine was diagnosed with ME and Lyme disease]. How are you feeling now?
“Really good, thank you. It’s been a lot of work, slowly but surely I’ve built myself up. At one point it was an achievement to get myself to the kitchen to make a cup of tea and go back to bed without feeling like I was going to collapse. It was literally that difficult. I was very depressed. Now I have a whole new appreciation of life – so much so that I can be a bit annoying! I’m always saying ‘look at those trees! Look at that lovely old couple holding hands!’ My friends are like ‘Calm. The hell. Down, woman!’ But it’s great to feel alive.”

Q. How does it feel to know your album is coming out after a long break from music?
“I was nervous at first because these song were never meant to be on an album! It’s really personal stuff, some of it written when I was having a hard time, just so I could try to work through some of my feelings. It’s nice that something good has come out of something so difficult. I’m also pleasantly surprised that anyone is interested. You don’t take it for granted in this game – being away for so long and focusing on other things. It’s amazing and I’m so grateful.”

Q. Is your two-year-old son Rafferty musical, like his parents?
“Well, he has music in his genes; he’s got a little Spider-Man guitar he likes to play and he is on the drums in (Jack McManus) Daddy’s studio all the time. I always wanted to be a mum, but it eluded me for a long time. He’s been the beacon of light in all our lives.”

Q. Are you sick of the press focusing on your weight?
“Yes! Rightly or wrongly, my weight has usually been the last thing on my mind. In this industry when being a size six is the norm, it’s a lot of pressure. Luckily – at my age – there’s no pressure to be supermodel-perfect. I think it’s demeaning to grade women by their weight. I can’t believe that in this day and age we’re so demeaning – you wouldn’t judge someone for the colour of their skin or their accent. I find body shaming really weird and creepy.”

Q. How do you unwind?
“I love Thai massage bubble baths and scented candles. I’m a typical Taurean – I love luxury; it makes me feel safe. I love to do really gentle yoga and watch something really light and fluffy on telly. I’m a big Murder She Wrote fan – I’ve always loved it, like a little old lady, Rosemary & Thyme and Midsomer Murders!”

Q. Do you watch EastEnders?
“I don’t! It’s a bit of a busman’s holiday because you know how it works, you know the mechanics, and it’s a different time. I feel blessed that I was in EastEnders when I was. In those days you had no reality TV, only four channels. So when you made a name for yourself in one of the big soaps, people at home were really intetested in you. At that time we had Top of the Pops filming in the nearby studio, and pop stars like Bono and Kylie would come and hang out. I remember me and Patsy [Palmer] pinching ourselves because Noel Gallagher came along and was pleased to meet little old us! It was a hedonistic but innocent time and I loved it.”

Q. Do you get nervous before performing live?
“I get horrifically nervous! I turn into a very irritable nervous wreck before I go on stage! I try to deep breathe and calm down. But the minute you stop getting nervous, you stop that energy. So long as you treat nerves as your friend and not your foe, it will give you that oomph you need on stage.”

Q. Is there one stand-out live music performance you’ve seen? “Fleetwood Mac in Madison Square Gardens. Jack took me to see them and Lindsay Buckingham just stole the show, so did Stevie Nicks. I adore the chemistry of them together. They had the whole audience on their feet; everybody was smiling and singing. It was the most spine-tingling experience and I was walking on air for three days after. Seeing them, showed me why I want to do what I do.”

Sumptuous Summertime

Liz Nicholls

All Areas

As August arrives, Katie Kingsley serves up three dishes which make the most of the flavours and textures of the height of summer.

Crispy baked artichokes

(Each artichoke yields four pieces)

A real treat; all the effort goes into the preparation of the artichoke so the cooking method is extremely straightforward. Put out a plate of these beauties with aperitif straight from the oven with some lemon butter or homemade aioli for dipping and your evening will be off with a blast!

Heat your oven to 200°C. Fill a large bowl with cold water and squeeze in the juice from half a lemon. Remove the outer leaves of the globe artichokes until you get to the pale yellowish leaves and rub with the other half of the lemon to stop browning. Use a small sharp knife to pare down where the bottom leaves meet the top of the stem and then use a vegetable peeler to peel around the stem, snap off the woody ends. Rub all cut sides with lemon. Quarter your artichokes through the centre and remove the fibrous ‘fluffy’ chokes and wiry purple leaves. Add to the citric water whilst you finish off the preparation. Bring a pan of salted water to a boil then add your artichokes with the lemon halves and boil for 10-15 minutes then drain, discard lemon and cool. Drizzle olive oil onto a baking tray then add your artichokes and drizzle with more oil and sprinkle with course salt. Bake for 20 minutes on each side or until nicely crisp and browned. Serve with lemon wedges, more salt if needed and a scattering of chopped parsley.

Salmon and cucumber summer spread

Delicious dolloped on caraway crackers or spread on to a toasted bagel. A lighter, fresh tasting snack for balmy summer evenings or perhaps as a lighter dinner after a beefy barbecue.

Peel half a cucumber, slice through the centre and spoon out the seeds. Chop into matchstick-sized pieces and place in a colander with a sprinkle of salt so the water can drain away. Finely dice five cornichons and add to a bowl with 1tsp of Dijon mustard, 2tsp of rinsed capers, 100g of smoked salmon cut into thin strips, 50g of mayonnaise, 50g of sour cream and chopped dill, coursely ground black pepper and lemon juice to taste. Pat dry the cucumber with kitchen paper before adding to the mix and serve with thin slices of red onion on carb of choice.

Charred apricots with maple French toast and vanilla mascarpone

Biscuity bottom, buttery and nutty with bursts of sweet cherry…

Heat oven to 190˚C. Grease and line a nine-inch, square brownie tin. Make your crust by mixing together 100ml of melted unsalted butter with 70g of golden caster sugar, 1/4 tsp of vanilla extract, 130g of plain flour and a pinch of salt. Press your crust into the base of the tin and bake for 20 minutes until golden. Remove from oven and leave in tin to cool whilst you prepare the filling. Melt 115g of unsalted butter in a small saucepan and cook, stirring for about six minutes until it turns a nutty brown (careful not to burn). Pour into a bowl to cool. In a medium bowl whisk together 100g of golden caster sugar, 30g of plain flour, two large eggs, 1 tsp of almond extract and a pinch of salt then add your browned butter gradually while whisking until blended. Remove the stones from 450g of cherries and arrange in the bottom of your tin over the cooled crust. Pour over your filling carefully then cook for 30 minutes or until the top is puffed and golden and a tester comes out clean. Once cooled, slice and serve.

Soul Food

Liz Nicholls

All Areas

Katie Kingsley serves up some thoroughly wholesome yet joyful goodies to make the most of your summer!

Broccoli Grain Bowl

A great barbecue side or healthy packed lunch. The notion to chop broccoli into small pieces had never occurred to me but it works really well in this dish. The beauty of this recipe is that you can use any leftover veggies with any store cupboard grains. I like to serve this kind of side with pork loin or cubed chorizo but it also works well with fish or tofu.

Cook two packs (about 400g) of broccoli spears in salted boiling water for two minutes then drain and when cool enough to handle, chop into small pieces. Heat 4 tbsp of olive oil in a large pan and cook three finely sliced garlic cloves until turning golden with the zest of two lemons and a sprinkle of aleppo pepper or chilli flakes.

Add your broccoli for a few minutes then two cups of cooked grains such as quinoa, spelt, rice or chickpeas then warm through and season to taste. Add the juice of one or two lemons and serve in bowls topped with pecorino romano.

Dry Rub Oven Chicken with Herby Corn

This is so delicious; sweet, smoky, tender and juicy chicken with tasty crispy skin. I love the combination of the naturally sweet corn and fresh, citrus herb oil, it really hits all the notes. I don’t think you can beat sauté potatoes to complete the dish. Food to feed the soul.

First brine your chicken for at least one and up to six hours. Place about 12 pieces of skin-on, bone-in chicken legs and thighs into a solution of 4 cups of water and 1/3 cup each of fine salt, soft brown sugar and white vinegar. Heat oven to 150˚C. Make spice rub by combining together 6tbsp of soft dark brown sugar, 4 tbsp of smoked paprika, 1 tbsp of mild chilli powder, 1 tbsp of celery salt, 1 tbsp of fine sea salt, 1 tbsp of garlic granules, 2 tsp of course red pepper powder, 2 tsp of course black pepper and half a grated nutmeg.

Drain your chicken from the brine and pat dry with kitchen paper. Use a large bowl to rub the spice mix all over the chicken, be generous with the rub (I use it all). Take a large piece of foil, big enough to fold back on itself and into a parcel and place the seasoned chicken on it, skin facing up then fold the foil over creating a tightly sealed parcel. Place this on a rack in the oven and cook for two hours. Once cooked, carefully open the parcel, remove the chicken onto a baking tray and pour all the juices into a small saucepan, reducing with a drizzle of honey until it coats a spoon.

Place the chicken under a medium-high heated grill for about five minutes so the skin chars at the edges. Remove corn from four husks and sauté in a pan with a knob of butter. Take a bunch of basil and half a bunch of mint and add to the small bowl of a processor with the juice of 1 lemon, 1 handful of pecorino romano, 100ml of rapeseed oil then blend and season to taste. Mix through the corn and serve alongside the chicken with a drizzle of the reduction.

Cherry Slices

Biscuity bottom, buttery and nutty with bursts of sweet cherry…

Heat oven to 190˚C. Grease and line a nine-inch, square brownie tin. Make your crust by mixing together 100ml of melted unsalted butter with 70g of golden caster sugar, 1/4 tsp of vanilla extract, 130g of plain flour and a pinch of salt. Press your crust into the base of the tin and bake for 20 minutes until golden. Remove from oven and leave in tin to cool whilst you prepare the filling. Melt 115g of unsalted butter in a small saucepan and cook, stirring for about six minutes until it turns a nutty brown (careful not to burn). Pour into a bowl to cool.

In a medium bowl whisk together 100g of golden caster sugar, 30g of plain flour, two large eggs, 1 tsp of almond extract and a pinch of salt then add your browned butter gradually while whisking until blended. Remove the stones from 450g of cherries and arrange in the bottom of your tin over the cooled crust. Pour over your filling carefully then cook for 30 minutes or until the top is puffed and golden and a tester comes out clean. Once cooled, slice and serve.

Jackson Live!

Liz Nicholls

All Areas

Liz Nicholls chats to singer, songwriter, guitarist and dad Tito Jackson

Q. Hello Tito and thanks for coming to play in this country for your 50th anniversary. 50 years – how does that feel?
“It’s been a great trip! In the early days, as brothers we couldn’t have dreamed we’d be what we are today. To have such a longevity is a blessing – we can put ourselves in the same category as the Stones. Every turn of the way there’s something new to be excited about which keeps our motivation going. We’re very proud of the 50 years we’ve done. We keep making the music and telling our story and being The Jacksons – that is who we are.”

Q. Do you feel Michael is present with you on stage?
“Yes, Michael is constantly in our minds while we’re on stage. We’re performing songs of the Jackson Five and we feel him with us. We do some of Michael’s music on stage and he’s certainly remembered.”

Q. I hear you love playing in England?
“Yes; England has always been a love, not just for me but the whole group – it was the first country we ever visited outside of America. When we got there in the early 1970s we got such a reception – they chased us through the airport, gathered outside our hotel singing Jackson Five songs, the streets blocked off and everything! England’s history, beauty and the people mean we love performing for English people!”

Q. What was it like meeting The Queen?
“I played at the Jubilee show in the ’70s and met The Queen and Charles – Elton John played, too. We had all the instruction on how to greet The Queen – there’s certain protocol, you see, you mustn’t touch her hand and all that… and we were nervous! But when we met her she was very nice to us, made us feel so comfortable around her. It’s a memory you’ll never forget, meeting The Queen of England; I have that picture of us all on my mantelpiece. For us, it’s right up there with being inducted into the Hall of Fame.”

Q. Do you listen to new music?
“Yup, I try to put my ear on everything I can. Even if you don’t care for a song when you first hear it, you can get something from it. I listen to as much as possible; it keeps me musically trained so that’s where I’m at with that. I like Bruno Mars, Maroon 5, Beyoncé, The Weeknd… and all music by The Jacksons, 3T stuff [Tito’s sons’ band], and Janet’s too, of course!”

Q. Did you encourage your sons [TJ, Taryll and Taj] into the industry or was it a natural career choice for them?
“It was natural because when they were little boys they always went to their uncles’ shows. They’d lip synch along to I Want You Back and ABC and I’d say ‘what are you guys doing?’ And they’d say ‘we love the music and want to be like our uncles’. And I said ‘there’s more to it than lip synching – if you’re gonna be like us you’ve got to learn some instruments!’ The next four years we’d mess around, having so much fun with drums and keyboards and, the next thing you know, they were playing a Yamaha convention and have been going ever since. I’m proud of my sons – you’ll be hearing more from them!”

Q. Would Janet or Latoya ever be part of the group?
“As far as sharing a stage, it’s a possibility. It’s just scheduling – a task that can be tackled! We’re all excited for Janet, the baby of our family who now has a baby of her own; she’s doing great. She’s very happy about her new son and can’t wait to get herself back on the road someday.”

Q. What advice would you give to any budding musician? “Remember showbusiness is fun but has lots of setbacks. There are good avenues you can take, but bad ones, too, which lots of artists have taken. If you can keep your head level, make the best music you can, love your fans and never rely on one hit, you’re good. Without fans you don’t have a leg to stand on – they support you and keep you standing. I’ve never refused a picture or autograph. You owe them… Yep – remember your fans!”

Flower Power

Liz Nicholls

All Areas

Liz Nicholls catches up with the nation’s favourite gardener Alan Titchmarsh who turns 67 this month and has written more than 50 books.

Q. What’s your favourite plant and why?
“I’m a huge fan of Cedrus libani – the cedar of Lebanon. I planted three in the land at the back of our house ten years ago and they are beginning to look lovely… though I’ll never see them at their glorious best. It gives me tremendous pleasure to think those who come after me will enjoy them.”

Q. Where did you love of gardening spring from?
“I was eight or nine and loved being outdoors. I found I could sow seeds and they would come up and it spurred me on. I built my own greenhouse when I was 10 or 11 from old bits of wood and polythene. It was my sanctuary, even then.”

Q. How well do you know Blenheim?
“I’ve always loved the grandeur and proportions of Blenheim and the way it sits so beautifully in the landscape. I’m a great fan of
Capability Brown and his work here is spectacular.”

Q. Do you get ‘mobbed’ by fans while you’re out?
“Not exactly mobbed – except at flower shows! People come up all the time – not always to ask advice. Sometimes just to say ‘hello’, which is really rather nice.”

Q. What do you love about where you live?
“I split my time between Hampshire and the Isle of Wight where we have a house by the sea. To be allowed to make two gardens – one coastal – has been a joy. I love the food at the Little Gloster restaurant in Gurnard, just outside Cowes. They do the best roast pork on a Sunday! I’m a Yorkshireman living away from home but have lots of friends in Hampshire and on the Isle of Wight and my grandchildren live ten minutes away from us in Hampshire. Closeness to my family is the most important thing of all.”

Q. What is your favourite piece of music?
The Lark Ascending by Ralph Vaughan Williams always moves me.”

Q. Do you enjoy writing? Any more books in the pipeline?
“I’ve written for a living since 1974 – first about gardening and subsequently about natural history and royalty. I wrote my first novel in 1998 and recently completed my tenth – Mr Gandy’s Grand Tour. I’ve loved writing since I left school, whether stories, newspaper columns or non-fiction. It’s just what I do. I have been commissioned for another two novels so I’ll have to get thinking. Heaven knows where the inspiration comes from, but I hope they are entertaining and thought-provoking.”

Q. What’s your favourite book?
“I would choose The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame – it’s a lovely story and the perfect evocation of the English countryside.”

Q. If you could grant one wish for Britain, what would it be?
“I hope we can keep our children and grandchildren connected with the natural world – screens seem to keep them away from it. I feel passionate about communicating the thrill of nature and growing things to the next generation. Without that understanding both they and the planet will suffer. Get them out there!”

Q. Is there any bit of gardening kit you treasure?
“I treasure my grandfather’s spade and I bless the day I bought pair of long-reach De Wiltfang secateurs that mean I can prune high branches without a ladder!”

Q. What advice would you give your younger self?
“Trust your instinct and remember you have as much right to be here as anybody else. Be open to opportunities that come from unexpected directions and prize generosity of spirit above all else.”

Q. Is there anything on your bucket list?
“I’d love to conduct an orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall!”

You bet

Liz Nicholls

All Areas

We catch up with singer-songwriter Olly Murs, about life and music after The X Factor

Q: Your new album – 24 Hrs – is your fourth consecutive number 1. How does that feel?!
“Amazing! I’m very proud – I never expected in my wildest dreams I would’ve got this far… so, absolutely delighted.”

Q. Who were your early musical influences?
“I grew up listening to soul and ska as well as Brit Pop. So Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Prince, James Brown, Bowie, The Specials, Madness… I also looked up to people like [Michael] Bublé, Robbie Williams and Justin Timberlake for their musical careers and their longevity.

Q. Is there a song that never fails to cheer you up?
“Go-to cheerful tunes… too many to mention! But Chic’s Good Times never fails to cheer me up.”

Q. What about your favourite film? And book?
The Goonies – classic! But I’m a massive Star Wars fan so I’d say any Star Wars film. I don’t have a favourite book – but I love a good biography. Sir Alex Ferguson’s was brilliant.”

Q: You’re the most successful male artist ever to come from the X Factor – what do you reckon has been the secret of your success?
“I dunno, I’d like to think I’ve done some great songs. My previous albums are happy and people enjoy listening to them. This album is still happy, still got lots of that vibe on it, but it’s probably the most heartbreaking, most honest I’ve done. It’s just luck, you know, that people like me and people have bought my albums and I’m very lucky they do!”

Q: You’re undertaking a massive UK headline arena tour this month and a huge run of outdoor shows – how do they vary?
“It’s fun being outside; I’ve done racecourse gigs but not this sort of size. It gives me the chance to go to different places in the UK I haven’t been to before, do something slightly different. I can’t wait – I mean, I can go to the racecourse during the day, have a little flutter on a couple of the races and then do a gig in the evening. Perfect. You’ve got out there and put a few bets on – the only problem for me at the races is not drinking too much! A couple of sly beers, maybe…”

Q: Have you got a pre-stage ritual?
“Me and the band have a little huddle before the show and we sing a song we’ve got as a team and we’ve been doing for the last six or seven years. I’m sure we’ll be sinking a few shots before the show as well just to get into the racecourse spirit!”

Q: How do you choose your set list?
“It’s going to be difficult, you know, five albums. But you’ve just got to play the hits and the songs people know. That’s what I’ll do with the set – make it as entertaining as possible. I’ll throw in a few covers as well, have a bit of a laugh with the fans and it’ll be a really fun day out. I promise any fan that comes along, it’ll be a right laugh from the start of the day to the end of it and I promise to make sure everyone goes home happy having had a good time!”