How Kim Wilde is helping stressed children flourish

Gill Swain discovers the Eighties pop star who became an earth mother and TV gardener is turning the spotlight on pupils whose lives are blighted by anxiety.

When Kim Wilde  laid out a path in her garden as a hopscotch run for her children, she planted clumps of camomile and thyme in between the stones so that when they jump on them, sweet scents rise to assault their noses. Nearby there is a weeping elm whose branches fall in a cascade, creating a “living tent”, and in the vegetable plot she has planted a pumpkin and cut a smiling face into it which is expanding as it grows, ready for Hallowe’en. The Eighties pop star turned celebrity horticulturalist has designed the patch as a miniature garden of Eden for her children, Harry, six, and four-year-old Rosie.

It lies at the back of her 16th century barn conversion, with its gorgeous view over the rolling hills of Hertfordshire, and most days she’s out there getting her hands dirty, helping them mark out their names in colourful annuals or teaching them to recognise plants by their smell. It’s very important, she says, for children to be relaxed and happy. “I try to make life here as calm and soothing as possible so that when they go out into the world, they feel supported and strong whatever life throws at them, ” she explains. “All the extra pressure on children these days is not positive and I am watching very carefully to make sure they can cope.”

That’s why she has agreed to be the spokesperson for a project that highlights the soaring stress levels among today’s youngsters. The Centre for Family Research at the University of Cambridge has produced a report, sponsored by Bold 2in1 Lavender And Camomile washing powder, which adds to the growing body of evidence suggesting children and teenagers are more prone to stress than ever before.

The increasing burden of exams is one factor and the report identifies the children most vulnerable as the ones parents describe as emotional or non-academic, children of manual or unskilled workers, those exposed to “life events” such as death or divorce, and those from unhappy families.

One of the most marked suggestions of the study is that boys suffer from exam stress much more than girls. It also reveals that parents’ efforts to help are often counterproductive. Leaving children to tackle studies alone appears to produce the best result while gentle reassurance increases stress in both sexes and encouraging them to practice causes the anxiety levels in boys to triple.

The findings came as no surprise to Kim, who waved Rosie off for her first day at primary school recently. She says that Harry, who faces his first SATS tests this academic year, shows occasional signs of stress doing homework while she can imagine Rosie sailing blithely through all challenges.

“Harry doesn’t have major stress symptoms, like sleeplessness and loss of appetite, but he sometimes gets irritable. I give him gentle encouragement but certainly no pushing, ” she says.

“My top priority is being there for them so I can cuddle them while we read stories together on the sofa and be around at bathtime and bedtime. You need to spend quality time with children so you can listen to them and be properly interested in what they are saying.” Beyond the formal beds of Kim’s garden, which display a late summer profusion of fading flowers and seed heads, there is a field where Kim and her husband Hal Fowler have planted trees and built a climbing frame and a treehouse, turning it into an adventure playground for the kids.

“They were my inspiration to create my garden and I am making as many fantastic places for them in it as I can so they won’t want to leave home until they are at least 43!” she jokes.

This is a woman who gives the term earth mother a new dimension, whose mind continually hums with plans for creative things to do with her children and whose only regret is there aren’t enough hours in the day to pickle beetroot or make rosehip jam.

When so many young people long to be pop stars, it’s disconcerting to meet someone who had all the fame and adulation which comes with a highly successful singing career, yet is so adamant that mucking about in the mud with a couple of kids is not only less stressful than stardom but is also a great deal more interesting.

Not that Kim, 43, has faded from the limelight altogether. As soon as she switched her interest from disco to digging, she was snapped up as a presenter of TV garden makeover shows.

The eldest of the four children of Sixties pop star Marty Wilde and his wife Joyce, Kim was brought up in a close and loving family and so always longed for one of her own. However, she reached the age of 30 with no sign that it was going to happen.

By then, she had spent 10 years at the top of the music industry, having burst on to the scene with her first single Kids In America, which sold a million copies. She went on to sell seven million albums and 12 million singles – achievements which turned her into one of the highest earning singers of her generation.

It was a superficially glamorous life of travelling, performing, recording and promoting, and Kim says: “I was bored. I’d had enough.

I liked the performing but the rest was a grind and it was always the same. My career wasn’t going so great any more either so it was easy to get out of it.”

SHE bought her barn, which has a soaring roof crisscrossed by beams, exposed brick walls and stone flagged floors and is 15 minutes from her parents’ home, but moving in brought on a crisis.

“I had second thoughts about living in a big house which felt like it needed a family and I didn’t have one. It was a trying time, ” she says.

Lonely and unable to envisage what life might hold for an ex-pop star with no other skills, she sank into a depression, barely leaving the house for four months. Yet she pulled herself together and took off for a backpacking trip to Thailand. Soon after she returned, she got the invitation which was to transform her life.

It was an offer to audition for the West End musical Tommy. She landed the part and on the first day of rehearsals in 1996, she met Hal, an actor and singer now aged 36. Six months later, they were married.

“He was the first person I’d met I thought I could spend the rest of my life with and have children with. I was 36 by then and wondering if it was ever going to happen.

When it did, it was like I left my familiar life behind and entered a brave new world with a new name and new passport. It almost felt like I was a criminal changing my identity.” Hal, who comes from a close family in the Lake District, was as keen as Kim on having children and within a year she was pregnant with Harry. That’s when she decided to do an evening class in planting and garden design.

“I loved it and learned a lot – and I learned I loved learning a lot, ” she says.

“I did well too. I was getting distinctions for my work. I’d never got distinctions for anything I’d done before. Horticulture kept me motivated, challenged and interested, as well as at home which is what I wanted most of all.” Kim’s career switch coincided with a mushrooming of interest in horticulture and the beginning of the TV makeover show boom. She was spotted by the producers of ITV’s Better Gardens when they were doing research at her college, and was asked to be a presenter.

“I knew I’d got it only because I was Kim Wilde and I was being billed as a garden designer when I wasn’t one, so it was a lot of pressure and it was scary. But it was also a great opportunity so I just had to learn on the job. My attitude was: go for it and try the best you can. And, mostly, good things happened.

“Doing the show, I found myself without the starry shell I was used to hiding behind. I was overweight after the birth of my two children and as I worked with the sweat running down my face, I felt unmasked for the first time.

“I found it thoroughly liberating because I was emancipated from the constraints of having to be this glamorous person. At last, people were interested in me for something other than my pout.” Relying on charm and enthusiasm rather than extensive knowledge, Kim recalls only one brush with near disaster.

“A lady wanted a feng shui garden so I did a crash course in it for the programme. But I still didn’t really understand it and her interpretation of it was nothing like whatever I did understand, so she ended up far from pleased.

“Even with all the knowledge I’ve accumulated since, I’m still only scraping the surface so I’d love to do a degree. I recognise I’m in a very fortunate position because my previous success has enabled me to go into horticulture without any monetary pressures when other people face a hard slog to make a living from it.”

KIM has presented Garden Invaders for the BBC, designed a number of show gardens for festivals and is writing a children’s gardening book as well as taking part in a short Eighties nostalgia singing tour once a year.

Her gardening career takes a physical toll, however. She hates wearing gloves so her work inflicts cuts on her hands in spring and autumn and her back is now prone to painful spasms – this is a legacy of pushing heavy wheelbarrows on Garden Invaders in an effort not to wimp out in front of the boys. But Kim relishes the physical challenges involved in making her garden grow.

“I am building up my compost, ” she announces happily.

“It needs turning over so it will rot down into a wonderful mulch which I will spread around to stop the weeds growing.

“I love the idea of growing stuff and making it into something. I saw some silver birch sap wine at the Dundee Flower Festival and it appeals to me to find some other obscure plant to make wine out of.

“It’s great for kids to interact with the natural environment because that way they grow up creatively, and I believe the way to open up their minds in all subjects is to find the key to their creativity and make them feel really good about it.” As she gazes out across her garden to the view beyond, she reflects on the future.

“I want to stay in this house for the rest of our lives. I think it might break my heart if I couldn’t live here.” But a second later she reconsiders. “No, that’s wrong. It’s just a house, ” she says. “Hal, Rosie, Harry and I are what’s important and we could be happy anywhere.”