Alys Fowler greets me at a Birmingham train station looking like an explorer from the 1930s. The former Gardeners’ World presenter and newspaper columnist is dressed in a tweed jacket, sturdy tan leather lace-up ankle boots and tortoiseshell glasses, with her distinctive auburn mane piled up on top of her head. She is carrying two bags, one an old-fashioned rucksack, the other a slim duffel.
This bag, containing an inflatable kayak, changed Fowler’s life, an epiphany movingly chronicled in her new book, Hidden Nature. Talking ten-to-the-dozen, the 39-year-old plunges me into the hidden labyrinth of canals that run through the city like veins under the skin. As a Brummie, I was lazily aware that the West Midlands had more miles of canal than Venice, but like most locals, avoided them, a murky hinterland glimpsed from the road or train, sludge-brown water overhung with weedstrewn banks that might conceal discarded shopping trolleys and shady characters.
But for Fowler, who moved to the city ten years ago, discovering the network was like finding a magical world of hidden peace and unbridled nature. “I was at a stage in my life where I was longing for adventure. I decided that I was going to map out all the canals by canoe. I was interested in exploring how nature was making its home in this polluted, unlikely space.”
After excitedly leading me along a complicated series of locks, Fowler unloads the kayak, and within minutes and with some deft manipulation of a blue silk pillow that acts as a bellow, she has inflated the bright red 6ft dingy, assembled the oar and is demonstrating how to get in.
I’m terrified as I launch myself gingerly into the boat, but after spinning around in circles and tipping half of the canal on to my lap, thanks to Fowler’s gentle instructions I find myself lapping along the dark silky water. On the towpath, Fowler points to the submerged tendrils out of which lilies will sprout, and as the sun breaks through the cloud and I bob gently on the water, the sound of the city fades away and the world I thought I knew looks utterly different.
With Monty Don on Gardeners’ World in 2006
For Fowler, that shifting perspective would turn out to be even more profound. “I thought I was writing an adventure story about canals but it’s actually about me coming out – canals are the side story.” In the book, as she weaves through the network over the course of a spring and summer, Fowler realises that she’s in love with another woman, a painful revelation that begins the break-up of her marriage of 13 years.
“I was in this shifting, unsettled space in an urban environment but the irony was that there was a lot of shifting within me. Everything was in this weird liminal state – it was this metaphor for my own life.”
Discovering that she was gay in her late 30s came as a shock to Fowler: “I thought I was having a classic midlife crisis. How could I do this so late in life? I thought that people knew from when they were a child that they were gay.” The anguish Fowler goes through confronting her feelings is heartbreaking, compounded by the fact she was a carer to her artist husband, Holiday, who has cystic fibrosis. “There is so much guilt among women for leaving their family. You are supposed to self-sacrifice. You put other people’s needs first. I have left a very sick man who doesn’t need to grapple with why someone has left him. But if I hadn’t I would have gone mad.
Lost in her odyssey, she also turned away from gardening, her livelihood, but also something she has done since she was a child growing up in Hampshire. “I thought it was the moment I was going to give up gardening, but I have come back to it slowly. Now I garden because I have to garden – physically, because I like it, and mentally it gives me the right kind of space.”
But what she discovered on the canals was a fascination with a different kind of less-loved nature – the wild kingdoms of buddleja, herons, eels and even rats. “I like the everyday things. When I was studying at Kew, everyone else was into rare irises, but I was interested in the nature around me. You have to elevate the ordinary.”
Hidden Nature is also an account of Fowler’s love for the friends who journey with her and for Birmingham, a city she is now leaving to be with her new partner, Charlotte, in London. She says that while the book may come as a surprise to those who think it is going to be about plants, she hopes it gives support to anyone else coming out late in life.
“I was walking down the street the other day and a woman stopped in her car who recognised me from the TV. She told me that her daughter had come out and was getting married and how excited she was that now she would have two daughters. Those moments make you realise you have to share.”
To pre-order Hidden Nature by Alys Flower for £15.99 visit the RT Bookshop