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He's the voice of Radio Ulster's gardening and wildlife programmes but just a few years ago David Maxwell went through the worst and best year of his life, when he had to undergo open heart surgery... and his little girl was born

 

By Stephanie Bell

David Maxwell landed his dream job when he made the switch from reporting news for BBC NI to presenting Gardeners' Corner last September. Admitting to having "a borderline obsession" with gardening, it doesn't get much better than being able to immerse himself in his passion and get paid for it.

Such is his fascination that he even bought his home without stepping through the front door, basing his decision entirely on the size of the garden.

The 34-year-old shares his east Belfast home (with its very long garden) with his Welsh wife, Angharad (34), a physiotherapist, and their young daughter, Seren (3).

As he prepares to take a walk on the wild side with Wild North, a new four-part BBC Radio Ulster series launching this Sunday, David shares how the seeds for his great love for gardening were sown.

Family is no doubt what is most important to him and he also reveals how his daughter came along during the darkest year of his life, when he was diagnosed with a genetic heart condition.

In a far-reaching interview, he also talks about what it was like growing up in a rural manse and how he landed on his feet after university with a job as editorial assistant with The Times in London, covering the goings-on inside Westminster.

David, whose mum is Janet and father is the Rev David Maxwell, a Presbyterian minister in east Belfast, is the third of four children, and the only boy.

Until David was 10 the family lived in a manse in the Co Down countryside between Newry and Rathfriland.

It was an idyllic spot with beautiful, mature gardens and surrounded by open countryside.

Looking back, David can see how it influenced his life in several ways. "When I think about it now, that manse had an impact on me later in life," he says.

"The house came with the most beautiful garden full of mature plants. There was a monkey puzzle tree and giant rhododendron bushes which you could go inside where it was like another world. That's where my love of gardening came from."

Ironically, he believes the location's rather darker associations also sparked his love of journalism.

"Where we lived was quite close to the border and all around the house there were fields, but also in this rural idyll we had Army helicopters landing in the fields beside us.

"I went to Iveagh Primary School and they even landed in the school playground. As a child I didn't know the full significance of what was going on and I would have been shielded from the Troubles, but it gave me a natural curiosity about what was happening in the bigger world."

Growing up in a busy rural manse, from a young age David was used to people coming and going and he believes this early exposure to others also helped shape his confidence for his future career.

"It was a busy place and I think it taught me how to speak to people and relate to them and that built my self-confidence which was of course good for being a reporter."

Perhaps not surprisingly, David says he was traumatised when they had to leave their beautiful garden behind after his father was moved to a new church in Belfast.

To soften the blow, his parents bought him a greenhouse and he started to grow his own fruit and vegetables.

Soon after the family moved to the city, the young David started at Methodist College where he naturally felt at home among the debating and current affairs groups. Though he still wasn't sure what he wanted to do as a career, he had an interest in politics and opted to study it at Queen's University, Belfast. While there, he realised that he wanted to work in the media.

"I got involved with the student newspaper The Gown and also helped set up Queen's Radio. In my second year I realised that I should go into the media and I had a friend whose father was the Ireland editor for The Times, Martin Fletcher. I wrote to him and asked if I could do a week's work experience."

David graduated and went straight to London. That one week of work experience led to a casual job as an editorial assistant in The Times based at Westminster. What followed was "one of the most fascinating years of my life".

He continues: "Suddenly I was in this really bizarre scenario, where I was seeing the politicians I grew up with every day. I'd see Margaret Thatcher shuffle down the corridor or find Norman Lamont behind me in the queue in the post office or John Prescott ordering chips in front of me in the canteen.

"It felt like a students' union for adults. It was a great introduction to meeting people with such high profiles, and a fascinating time to be there."

Having helped set up Queen's Radio, David realised that's where his heart lay and he enrolled in a one-year broadcast journalism course at Cardiff University - and it was on a return trip there after he had qualified that he met his wife.

Back in Belfast, he worked for five months in the newsroom of Citybeat radio before landing a job as a freelance news journalist with the BBC in 2008.

David loved every minute of being in a busy newsroom: "I really enjoy news and my work allowed me to meet people and cover some fascinating stories as well as some sad stories."

Moving to Gardeners' Corner was "a big change" but, says David, "the opportunity came up and I think it is good to do something different. It is brilliant to get the opportunity to bring my passion into my work. It really is my dream job.

"I live in suburbia and I chose my home based purely on the garden. I didn't set foot inside my house until the day we got the keys.

"I had looked at Google images to check that the garden was big enough and that was enough for me. There was also a lovely established magnolia tree which was another selling point for me."

In terms of creating a new garden, David had a bit of a blank canvas to work with. In the four years he has been in his home the lawn continues to shrink as he adds to the plants he loves.

He says it is first and foremost a flower garden as his wife loves to arrange blooms but there are also some fruit and vegetable plants.

He admits: "I have put most of my efforts and time and money into the garden since we moved in four years ago."

A year after moving to their new home, however, the couple came through a bittersweet time when David was diagnosed with a serious genetic heart condition around the same time as they were expecting their daughter, Seren.

He had to undergo open heart surgery to have a plastic valve inserted, and he suffered some complications afterwards. He describes it as the worst year of his life - and also the best because of the birth of his daughter.

He says: "My daughter was born in 2014 which was one of the most difficult years of my life. I had a very serious heart issue. It was genetic and I was born with it but it wasn't picked up and, looking back, I think that was a blessing.

"Had I known there was something wrong with my heart when I was growing up, I think it would have been a real pressure on me as a child and as a teenager.

"I realised something wasn't right when I was pushing my nieces round the garden in a wheelbarrow and afterwards my heart was jumping out of my chest. My heart had become quite enlarged at that stage.

"That started a series of health checks and tests and I was diagnosed just before my daughter was born. I had to have open heart surgery when she was two months old. Seren was a real bright spot in what was a very dark time."

As well as the physical aspect of his health crisis, David admits there was an emotional fall-out from it too. At one stage he wondered if he would be able to pluck up the courage to appear in front of the cameras again.

He says: "I got through the surgery but there were a lot of complications. I was in and out of hospital and it's funny how that affects you.

"It actually made me feel that I would never have the confidence in myself to go back on TV or sit in front of a microphone again. My daughter gave me something to live for."

Thankfully, David has made a full recovery and, while his heart will be monitored and he will be on blood-thinning medication for the rest of his life, he says he has no health issues now.

There is no doubt that little Seren is the apple of his eye - and he is thrilled that at only three she is taking after her father and already showing a real interest in gardening.

"I know it sounds corny but I absolutely mean it when I say that every morning she wakes up is like Christmas," he smiles. "She is a wee rascal and is learning and taking everything in right now, and has a great sense of humour."

The proud dad continues: "It is wonderful to see her develop. She is interested in the garden and helped me plant bulbs last autumn and has watched them mature and develop and come into bloom. She can name her favourite flowers and even knows some Latin names as well."

David was just as thrilled to have the chance to get back into the countryside for his latest BBC show. In the first of the four-part series beginning on Radio Ulster this Sunday, he and Emer Maguire explore some of the wildlife that call Northern Ireland 'home'.

Throughout the series they will uncover everything from the huge Red Kite gliding over Co Down, to the colourful goldfinches of Co Tyrone.

David will also attempt to track down the elusive pine martin in the hills above Belfast, and search for dolphins from the Foyle River to the waters off Ballycastle, while Emer hunts for Ireland's only reptile, the common lizard.

David adds: "We share this place with some truly remarkable animals and in Wild North we are setting out to tell their stories and meet some of the people dedicated to protecting them. I can't wait to take to the seas, scan the skies and seek out the secretive in this exciting new series."

Wild North, Radio Ulster, tomorrow, 12.30pm

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