March 30, 2012 10:00 pm

Gardening with the FT: Linford Christie

The former sprint champion talks about swapping track shoes for work boots – and the obsessive thrill of the garden centre

Thora Hird sat on my lawnmower. That’s a real claim to fame if you are as obsessive about gardening as I am.” That’s not Alan Titchmarsh or Monty Don speaking, but Linford Christie. Britain’s most decorated male athlete and Olympic gold medallist is best known for pruning milliseconds off a 100m sprint time, but all the while, inside that Lycra-clad torso, there was actually a closet gardener bursting to get out.

Christie is discussing his love of horticulture today in a borrowed garden – his own plot is in the middle of a redesign and not fit to be seen, so we have come to the Surrey home and gardens of Penny Snell, chairman of Britain’s National Gardens Scheme. Instead of running spikes, Christie has me in a pair of wellies, wandering through the bushes and shrubs, as he explains how the pastime completely pulled him in.

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“Towards the end of my career it almost took over my life,” says Christie. “If I came home and spotted weeds in the garden I would get down on my hands and knees, even if I was wearing my best suit. I did the same when I was visiting friends’ houses – it was crazy. Athletes just have this obsessive nature. When we get in to something we have to give it 110 per cent. That’s what happened with gardening. I couldn’t keep away from garden centres and spent tens of thousands of pounds on plants.”

Christie is still the only British man to win gold in all four major championships: the Olympic Games in 1992, the World Championships the following year, plus the Commonwealth and European championships three times each. In total he claimed 23 major championship medals, 10 of them gold. After retiring in 1997 he concentrated on his sports management company, Nuff Respect, and coaching – athletes he has worked with include Darren Campbell, who took silver in the 200m at the Sydney Olympics in 2000, followed by a gold in the 100m relay at Athens, in 2004. He is currently coaching Mark Lewis-Francis, who hopes to run against Usain Bolt in the 100m at the London Games, as well as 400m hopeful Nigel Levine.

The athlete is delighted by the grounds of Moleshill House, Snell’s home in Cobham. He is still in great shape too, his powerful leg and arm muscles forking over a patch of ground in record time. “My favourite plant of all is Photinia Red Robin – the leaves turn red at the top and look like a fire,” he says. “And camellias are stunning, vivid flowers that fill a garden with colour.”

Christie checks the pruning at Moleshill House©Dan Burn-Forti

Christie checks the pruning at Moleshill House

Christie, who turns 52 on Monday, was born in Jamaica and moved to London when he was seven. His parents had a small garden at their home in Shepherd’s Bush, where his father grew vegetables. “Dad planted sweetcorn like he did in Jamaica, which was probably quite exotic for London in the 1960s. Money was tight, so it paid to grow your own. That’s when I first started helping out, learning the basics from him and Mum. My job was picking all the caterpillars off the cabbages, which is the reason why I hate growing vegetables to this day.”

Christie went to secondary school in Fulham but, remarkably, he didn’t take up athletics seriously until he was 19. To put that in perspective, Usain Bolt was 21 when he smashed the world and Olympic records in 2008. “I won my Olympic gold when I was 32, so I do wish I had started when I was younger,” says Christie. “People ask me all the time whether I would have liked to run against Bolt but my answer is, would he have wanted to race against me?

“On paper he is fast but it’s all about performing on the day. My best was 9.87 seconds and he has run 9.58 seconds. At one time I was the fastest man on the planet but now my time would only put me in the top 10. That’s how the sport has moved on. To beat Bolt, you have to break the world record.”

Christie’s love of gardening was rekindled when he bought a house in Acton in the 1980s. “That was the moment it kicked in. There were seven pear trees, loads of plums and some weird cactus too. It whetted my appetite for the next house, which had seven-and-a-half acres.” He has since moved to a house in Gerrards Cross, which has a more manageable plot to transform.

By the mid-1980s Christie was coming into his own on the track, winning the 1986 European Championships and coming second to Ben Johnson at the Commonwealth Games the same year. “When I came home from events it was straight from my track shoes into my work boots. I had this master plan to create a huge formal garden and it took up all my spare moments.”

Linford Christie sits with Penny Snell in her garden©Dan Burn-Forti

Christie with NGS's Penny Snell

To save time, Christie employed a landscape gardener to shape the grounds. “He came to see me with a drawing plan, but my daughter could have done better. So I decided to design it myself. There is no right way to create a garden but a good one makes you want to see what is round the next corner ... When I was a kid, my dad used to take me to Regent’s Park and we would hire a rowing boat. So I wanted to have a big pond with ducks for my daughter, with a bridge to an island in the middle. In the morning, it was really lovely to see the mother taking all the little ducklings across the pond. It brought out my mellow side.”

The pond was a success, until herons ate Christie’s prize fish, a drought soaked up much of the water and pondweed took hold. “I made so many mistakes. I shudder when I think how much money I poured in to that garden. My pride and joy was a Toro lawnmower. Thora Hird loved gardens and she came and had a go when I co-presented a BBC show called Garden Invaders. It still took me two hours every week to mow the grass but I was so obsessed I couldn’t hire a gardener to do it.”

Relaxing in the conservatory, I ask Christie if he thinks people find his love of gardening out of step with his aggressive running style; he once said he launched himself off the starting blocks at the “B of the bang”. “I work at a slower pace around the garden,” he explains. “But when I’m fired up, I can sort my flower beds out pretty quickly. I used to be very fired up before a major race but I learnt to channel my thoughts into more relaxing pastimes, like gardening. Working with athletes is fun but I’d much rather be in the flower bed than anywhere else.”

Penny Snell’s garden at Moleshill House, Cobham, Surrey, is open to the public through the National Gardens Scheme, under which private gardens open to the public in aid of charity; www.ngs.org.uk. See ‘Open season’ in House & Home.

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