Gardening guru Alys Fowler was happily married to a man for over a decade. Then she fell in love with a woman, writes Julia Molony
Tucked away in the plush library room at her publisher’s office in central London, Alys Fowler is contemplating whether it is a mid-life crisis that has led her here. She will turn 40 later this year and has written a new book — one that is vastly different to the ones that have gone before — the glossy coffee-table gardening guides which feature her cheery, sun-lit face on the cover.
Perhaps, she concludes, it is rather a “mid-life reckoning” that inspired her beautifully written latest work, Hidden Nature: A Voyage of Discovery. That title has a double meaning. In part, it is a straight-forward piece of nature writing — a journey into the unexpected wild places Fowler discovered when she decided, driven by some arcane impulse that perplexed those around to her, to start exploring the canal waterways of Birmingham in a fold-up canoe. But this physical adventure accompanied an even more transformational internal one. Over the last few years she ended her marriage after 14 years and started a new relationship with a woman. “I definitely didn’t set out to write the book as it is,” she says. “I was going to write a book about messing around on the Birmingham canals. I’m really interested in urban nature and how cities can become more sustainable, how nature works in cities, how wild exists even in places where you could imagine it might not have a place,” she says. But the project morphed into a kind of journal, and it was the act of writing everything down that forced her to acknowledge parts of herself that might otherwise have remained obscure.
“That act of keeping a diary essentially meant that I suddenly had a picture of something that was happening in my internal world as well as this external exploration that I couldn’t deny any longer,” she says. “And then there was just this point where I couldn’t hide. Simple as that. There were times when I felt that the book was writing me rather than I was writing the book.”
Such a dramatic and unexpected shift in the very fabric of who she is seems, even now, to have taken her rather by surprise. “I got married when I was very young in my 20s,” she says. “And I wouldn’t change anything about my marriage. I’m very happy to have spent that time there. But I’m not the person that I was. I’m a very different person now. In a really prosaic way you just get to the middle point of your life and you think, ‘does this all work for me still? Am I this person? If I’m going to spend the next 40 years of my life, which I hope I have left... what do I want to be doing? And so I think it’s probably a very natural and inevitable shift that you get to around about your 40s. Does this all still work for me? And if it doesn’t, what do I have to do to be honest about that?”
Throughout what has been a very confusing and turbulent period full of doubt and self-interrogation, the search for its authenticity has been her lodestar. She “bristles” she says, when people talk about the choice to come out later in life, as “brave”. Breaking up a marriage does not happen without pain and “at times it felt like a very uncourageous act to go and do. But all I can say is that my marriage was a very happy one. It was a long marriage. And being honest to my ex-husband was as important as anything else. So there was a point where I was like, ‘even if I don’t want to admit this out loud, I’m lying to somebody I really care about and that’s actually not something I can do,” she says. “So that was also a strange driving force.” It felt, at turns both “self-destructive” and inexorable — the realisation that, “If I try and keep this door shut, not only am I lying to everyone, including myself about who I am, I’m probably also going to go a bit nuts. I’m going to go crazy ... because keeping secrets like that is not healthy for anyone.”
Fowler grew up in rural Hampshire, where her father was a doctor and her resourceful mother ran a smallholding. Her description of her childhood makes it sound like it was lifted from classic children’s fiction. “My childhood was filled with two things, books and outdoors,” she says. It’s a picturesque image — a spirited little girl with russet curls, romping around the fields and forests on her parents’ farm.
Her parents are both “outdoor people”, she says. “They love nature, and it really instilled in all of us children a sense that the outdoors was not only an incredible place to be and explore and learn about, but also a place of refuge and reflection from everything else. If anything is wrong in our family someone always goes for a walk.” The idea of nature as an emotional palliative remains fundamental to Fowler. As an adult faced with new and unexpected inner turmoil, and approaching an impasse in her marriage, she tackled it by doing what she’d always done, “the only thing I knew to try to steady my world”, she writes in the book. “I’d sink into nature. Nature is very much a considerable other in all of our lives,” she says now of the culture within her family. “I do believe there is a profound sense of space and place and otherness in being outside that does allow you to kind of draw out your problems and see a bigger picture. There’s something about the restorative elements of green space ... you know, you don’t even have to be looking for them. The amazing thing is that the body wants it whatever. So you just have to go and be there. And once you’re there, all sorts of processes can happen internally that allow you to relax and make sense of stuff.” Her parents not only instilled a love of the outdoors, but also an interest in learning that helped the young Alys make sense of the natural world. “They spent a lot of time teaching us plant names and birds and butterflies and stuff like that. So there’s a sense that it’s not just a space to go into but I feel that my parents very much gave me a library to go at it — to understand it and explore it.”
Her decision to study horticulture after leaving secondary school makes perfect sense then, given her early education. After a Master’s Degree in Society, Science and the Environment at University College London, and a stint at the New York Botanical Gardens, she settled in London and began writing about gardening. She joined the BBC in 2005 as a researcher on Gardeners’ World. It’s not much of a surprise that she eventually found her way on-screen on that programme. With her charismatic beauty, jaunty style and wholesome enthusiasm, she was perfect for television. The Daily Telegraph called her “a bright young thing” of gardening.
Meanwhile, she had met and fallen in love with the man she affectionately describes in the book as a “penniless artist”. She calls him ‘H’ in the book. Through him, she found a whole new landscape to explore. “H introduced me to artists, writers, musicians and movements, whole new ways of looking at the world,” she writes. He also brought her a new sense of perspective. H was born with the serious genetic condition cystic fibrosis. “In the eyes of the world, I was his carer,” she says in the book. “Of course, since we were young and in love, it didn’t feel like that; we were brave and brilliant, because we understood fragility.”
Getting married so young to someone who has a chronic illness, she says “starts off as something that is overwhelming. And then one day you realise you’ve just been living with it and doing it. The outsiders’ perspective of that is always — like any relationship, it always looks more complicated from the outside than it is from the inside. And so actually, it had heartbreaking moments, it had moments which were really stressful for both of us. There were lots of times where living with a chronic illness is incredibly tough. But there were also many other moments which are very hard to explain to people. It’s so trite to call it a blessing but it does give you a sense of perspective on the world and worries and stuff like that. Because you have this thing that’s very real and present and says: ‘‘Really? You’re going to lose sleep over this — because there’s this bigger thing going on.” She was forced to live very much in the moment.
But H’s illness, she admits in the book, robbed them of the freedom to imagine “growing old together”. Any hopes she might have had to become a mother also remained, necessarily, on ice. “Having a child with somebody who has cystic fibrosis, particularly if they are male, is not impossible, by any means,” she explains. “But it is quite a lengthy and involved process. It’s not like you can just go out and get pregnant. And that changes a lot of things because you have to constantly go, ‘are we in the right place to do this?’ And so that sort of put a spanner in the works, for want of a better way of putting it.”
Despite those challenges, for many years her new identity as wife and perhaps also carer suited her perfectly. When Alys got a new, more secure job in Birmingham, the couple left their top-floor London flat, found a house with a garden (something she could only have dreamed of when living in the capital) and settled happily there. Throughout all of this time, she never suspected that she might one day come out as gay or bisexual. But time passed and Alys was changing. “One of the things that I think is very hard about coming out later in life is this thing where you question your own sense of honesty. When did I know this? Have I been denying (something) ... you go through all of these obvious questions. Can I trust myself? Can I trust how I’m feeling now when I didn’t think I felt like this 10 years ago? It all seems so much change.”
At some point, the familiar, contented life she had established started to chafe. Driven by an unspecified sense of yearning, she abandoned her beloved, carefully tended garden to the wild flowers, bought a boat, and set out onto the foreign terrain of Birmingham’s 100 miles of canals.
Most of her friends thought she was mad. But one day, she was joined on the water by two of them — Ming and Sarah. They’d brought with them a woman Alys had known as a passing acquaintance in her previous life in London. The experience of meeting Charlotte seemed to answer some of the many questions which had been playing havoc with her peace of mind. She is clear in the book that the romantic relationship between them didn’t begin until her relationship with H was over. But finding Charlotte, she says now, is what crystalised the shift in her sexuality. “I met her and thought — you exist. And if you exist then I cannot deny this any longer. Because you are so right. You feel so right. Who she is was just like, ‘wow, that is what I’ve been looking for’. She brought it all to the fore.’’
There had been no internal wrangle, no period of self-interrogation about her sexuality during her childhood or adolescence. “I used to have a lot of gay and lesbian friends, and they all seemed to know when they were like, four. And I thought, well I don’t know that clearly, therefore that makes me not. Which is an interesting thing about my mindset. I suppose there is a bit of a scientist about me ... I have no proof that I am (gay). I have no evidence that I am, therefore I shall proceed as if I’m not. You can look back and go, ‘well I did have a huge KD Lang fetish as a teenager’,” she deadpans. “But no. It becomes kind of irrelevant. I was very happy in my choice. And then something shifted. And it wasn’t even about happiness, because I think that’s kind of an odd thing to put on coming out. Because clearly coming out won’t necessarily make you happy. But it became about this thing of needing an internal peace. Being honest and reflecting on the fact that I could see that my sexuality had shifted. It was the difference between not choosing peace or choosing peace. And that has a huge effect on your entire well-being.”
At some point, she sat down with her husband and found herself saying the words, “I’m gay.” She moved out of their bedroom in the house they shared and into the spare room. “Those first nights alone were washed in heartache and pain, saturated in loss,” she writes in Hidden Nature: A Voyage of Discovery.
Now, she spends her weekdays at home in Birmingham and at weekends travels to London to spend time with Charlotte. She has found the peace that she’d been in pursuit of for so long. But the new phase brings new questions and with her change of circumstances, the question of parenthood has taken a new shape. “As someone who is deeply committed to the environment I fight very hard with whether we need more humans in this world. Which is not to say I would judge anybody, because that is something I have really grappled with myself. Because it’s also such a natural, biological need, or process, that you can wake in the morning thinking, ‘yes, it’s right the world doesn’t need more children, and go to bed thinking, but oh, I would love a child’.”
How I wonder, did her ex-husband feel about her decision to tell their story in print? “He is an artist and we had a relationship that was very much about us both doing creative stuff. We’d always had a lot of space for each other just to do our work. There was always a really strong understanding between us both that nothing would stop the other one from doing the thing that was creatively important to them. And all I can say is that it’s testament to what a lovely man he is that he just said the most honest thing possible, which is, ‘I would tell a different story’. And, of course, he would. But that’s your story to tell.”