Saturday 2 June 2018

Blooming Chelsea

It was a complete surprise.

Dead excited, I grabbed the flat Christmas present from my sister, Di. Thinking it would be an Amazon gift voucher, I greedily tore open the envelope, mentally filling my Kindle with bestsellers. How wrong I was. Smiles turned to shrieks of delight when I drew out the contents – a ticket to the 2018 Chelsea Flower Show!

I’m hot back from our visit and decided to trade this month’s French yarns with a very British experience.

Di and I, plus two girlfriends set off bright and early on a typically English warm day. Lisa, my pal, was a first timer to Chelsea. Trainee gardener like me, she was keen to learn what all the ravings were about.

We knew the crowds would be huge, so decided to split into pairs and meet for a Pimm’s at lunchtime. It’s a Chelsea thing, to my knowledge everyone does it. At least that’s what Di tells me. I love my sister’s lush tendencies.

Lisa and I joined the amiable throngs along the retail avenue. It’s lined with innumerable enticing pop-up stores.

Artisans proudly flaunting hand crafted jewellery, country clothes, ceramics, perfumes and so much more, all hopeful that we’d stop to browse. That would come later, right now we had other priorities.

We headed to the main exhibits area. To our right were the magnificent Royal Hospital buildings, an architectural study in symmetry, our left was a fantasy of mini gardens and exhibitors surrounding the Great Pavilion.

Lisa, an inquisitive soul, asked me about the Chelsea Pensioners and how they came to live in such a splendid location. Sadly I didn’t know, but we found a steward who was only too pleased to help.

Things you probably knew but I didn’t.

Our wannabe helpful gentlemen guessed the youngest Chelsea pensioner could have been 70-ish and the oldest over 100. I have no idea whether his estimate was true, but the sprightly scarlet-uniformed veterans we saw during the day bore testament to his estimate. Intrigued to find out more, we researched further.

The story of today’s Royal Hospital Chelsea begins over 300 years ago during the reign of King Charles II. His vision to create a home for veteran soldiers was brought to life by the architect Christopher Wren.

According to, some 300 army veterans (men and women) call this magnificent location home. Their number includes those who have served in Korea, the Falkland Islands, Cyprus, Northern Ireland and World War II. Others may not have served in campaigns, but all understand what it means to be a soldier and the potential sacrifice it entails.

Understandably there are several eligibility criteria for admission as a Chelsea Pensioner. Of primary significance is that the candidate must be a former non-commissioned officer or soldier of the British Army.

Also eligible for admission are any former officers of the British Army who meet the criteria, provided they served for at least 12 years in the ranks before obtaining a commission, or if they were awarded a disablement pension while serving in the ranks.

Satisfied by our smattering of knowledge, we focused on the gardens. We were not there to examine scientific names, discuss new plant hybrids, or talk technical. Our aspirations were far more superficial. We intended to relax and enjoy the spectacle of the world’s greatest horticultural show.

Soon after, a new question occurred to Lisa. How did the Royal Horticultural Show (RHS) come to hold its spring show here? Good question, what a shame I was clueless about that one too.

Fortunately, we had been given a bag containing leaflets about it. Now beginning to feel somewhat inadequate, I dug one out and supplied the relevant information.

The RHS Great Spring Show was first held in the now-vanished RHS garden in Kensington, in 1862. Between 1888 and 1911, it was held in the Temple Gardens. It moved to its current site at Chelsea Hospital in 1913.

It is hard to accurately describe our surroundings. Suffice to say we, and thousands of others, were quickly immersed in extraordinary beauty. Varying in size, I guessed the gardens were around six paces x ten paces, although some were larger. Some contained buildings, others weird obelisks, and several had water features. Each was incredibly stunning in its own way.

“Ah-hah,” said Lisa with a chuckle, “there has to be a gnome here somewhere!”

“No gnomes,” I replied, finally relieved to be in possession of a fact, even though it was pretty low on the usefulness scale. “Although one designer allegedly sneaked one in every year, the Chelsea rules forbid the use of coloured sculptures, so garden gnomes have been banned throughout its history. Actually, some might feel it’s a good thing!”

That well-worn phrase, a picture paints a thousand words, is very apt for this show. And this is why.

Trade stands mingled with competing gardens. We didn’t know which to examine first. We checked out some of the garden structures. If your thing is greenhouses, Chelsea has it covered.

The simple glasshouse particularly impressed Lisa’s purist eye. Mine too, although I’m sure I would have stabbed the sides with my trowel every two minutes.

The sun flashed off a huge stone obelisk ahead, we had to find out what that was about. Nestled on the corner was a collection of rounded works of art. Each had serenely calming lines, each one as magnificent as the other. As luck would have it, Paul Vanstone, the sculptor was there. I asked if I could take a photo of him with one of his pieces.

“Yes, no problem, although I warn you my head looks like a potato in photos.”

You can be the judge of that!

Love statues and water features? Displayed by trade stands and competitors, there were lots. We gazed in wonder at Alice and her chums, Christopher Robin and a magnificent mermaid too.

Moving on, we politely squeezed to the front of another exhibit and found ourselves in an undersea world. Look up and one could see the swimmer diving in to join us. The fish, the flowery reef, the humanoid coral, it was extraordinary. 

Lisa dragged me away from this watery wonderland to see others. Staying with the wet theme, we collectively wowed at the Wuhan Water Garden, China. The water features fizzed and misted, and shot into the air. They are inspired by the city’s ability to manage and control flood waters of the Yangtze River, which gives Wuhan its nickname as the City of 100 Lakes.

We spied a television crew heading for another garden. We followed, dying to be impressed. Sadly we had to be told who the celebrity was. Sorry, Harry (from McFly), blame it on our ages. We’ll try harder next time!

We passed seas of lupins, lakes of lavender, irises to make your eyes water and allium the size of cannon balls. Were they genuinely real? we asked ourselves.

Lunchtime was soon upon us and with it the allure of Pimm’s No.1, that quintessential summer thirst quencher of England. A Gin-based tonic mixed into a long drink with lemonade. A delicate peel of cucumber, smidge of mint and tiny strawberry adding a touch of pizzazz, it was the perfect refresher.

We met up with Di and Jane, swapping flowery stories between sips. Several Chelsea residents were circulating, playing host to happy imbibers, creating more scenes that make this event so unique.

Next on our route were gardens with themes to blow your mind, your imagination too. We wowed at each and every one.

Then I spotted it. Actually it was hard to miss. I dragged Lisa to my favourite trade stand.

James Doran-Webb, a British sculptor, began by making papier mache life-sized animals, later evolving to using driftwood. His aim is to portray movement in his work. To achieve this he often uses two subjects interacting with each other. As you can see – it works!

I am in awe of his work, and have a hundred ideal spots in our forest and garden where his pieces would look perfect. Well, I can always dream. For now, I was very grateful to this superb artist for allowing me to take a snap of him leaning against one of his favourite stags. Thank you Mr. Doran-Webb!

Returning to plants, we admired the floral tribute to Harry and Megan. It is, after all, the flower show most associated with the Royal Family, who attend the opening day every year. Was theirs an historic wedding? Oh yes, I believe it was.

 We ambled through a glorious mix of eateries and exhibitors with thousands of other folks. The atmosphere was genial, soundbites echoing with laughter and music from stage performers. We were absorbing it all, loving every minute.

Passing more gardens, each was unique in its own way. One especially caught our eye. Laced with Hope it was called. Designed by Laura Anstiss, it was created to convey a message of hope for children diagnosed with cancer.

Feeling like intruders at a private meeting, we listened in to the explanations of the exhibit. Our hearts went out to the recipient, whose child had been struck by the disease. Her cascading tears said it all.

More trade stands, and this time cabins and swings – one of which definitely made this lady chuckle. We decided everyone needed one of those!

By this time we had passed so many ice cream vans we decided we had to have one. Lisa had bought the Pimm’s so it was definitely my shout. I got to the front of the queue and ordered our desperately British 99 ice cream cones with a flake sticking from the middle.

“I ain’t takin’ that,” said the ice cream man as I proffered my rusty ten pound note.

Thinking I had given him a euro note by accident, I double-checked, but it was the correct currency.

“What’s wrong with it?”

“It’s old,” he replied looking at me as though I was some kind of dinosaur.

This was frustrating. I’m old too, but I’m still in circulation.

“It’s okay though, isn’t it?”

“Nah, it ain’t got a winda in it love, s’no good.”

It was then that it dawned on me. The original British ten pound note, of which I had several squirreled away in amongst my euros, had recently been replaced a with new version. This was a blow. I scrambled together the correct pennies and returned to Lisa with drizzly ice creams. 

As pure luck would have it, we were very close to a bank cash machine with kiosk attached. Thinking it was worth a go, I poured out my expat sob story – it was quite a long account. The bank teller just about managed to stay awake, and to my delight, said there was no problem, he could change all my antique tenners. Luckily for him a security window separated us, otherwise he might have got a hug.

Nicely re-financed, we hung a left into the Great Pavilion and another factoid. The Great Marquee, which was first put up in 1951, was named in the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s largest tent (3½ acres). It was replaced by the current modular structure in 2000. The remains of the old tent were cut up and used to make 7000 bags, aprons, and jackets.

The floral displays here were nothing short of mind-bogglingly amazing. There were bonsai trees from Victorian days, flowering specimens, even bonsai woods – we marvelled at them all.

Armies of lupins, daffodils in full blooms – really? How on earth could they engineer these plants to flower in May?

Cacti that looked like spiders, spiky surprises with dazzling topknots, we ran out of superlatives for these.

David Austin presented a range of their roses in the centre section of the pavilion. As a delighted owner of several varieties, I couldn’t wait to check out their displays. We were met by a plethora of exquisite blooms, some scented, others not. Different colours, each equally as glorious as the other – we couldn't begin to imagine the work involved in putting such a remarkable display together.

Sadly time was against us now. We had to head for home soon, but there was one more avenue to explore on our way out. This was when Lisa asked another troublesomely pertinent question.

“So how do the entries and judging process work?”

Of course I had to plead ignorance. I resorted to the RHS literature and this is what I learned:

The gardens this year were judged in three different categories: Show Garden, Artisan Gardens, Space to Grow.

How are gardens judged?
Gardens are marked against a set of key criteria, but importantly, they are also marked against the designer’s written brief – has the designer done what he or she said they were going to do? Or in other words – would we have a happy client?

What is a garden brief?
Designers submit a brief well in advance of the show and this includes the following points:

Description of the garden
Purpose of the garden
Function of the garden
Key plants and features.

So, judges should expect to see what they were told they were going to see and if they don’t, no matter how stunning, fabulous and beautiful the garden is, it means something has gone wrong somewhere along the way and it will be marked down as a result.

This could mean a garden that appears to be Gold standard may only get a Silver Gilt – or even less –  because it doesn’t match up to the brief. Perhaps a key feature of the design, such as a sculpture, specimen tree or feature integral to the garden has had to be changed during the build process.

So what are the criteria?
As well as meeting the brief, there’s a number of other criteria for which the judges give marks.
Ambition – how original is the design? Is there theatre, flair, atmosphere and impact?
Overall impression – does the garden work as a whole? How fine is the finish and attention to detail?
Design – does the garden work for its supposed purpose?
Construction – how good is the quality of the build?
Planting – think colour, impact, composition, health but also – would these plants live and survive together?

What about the floral displays?
We have a different team of judges who assess the beautiful displays in the Great Pavilion. Among the elements they take into account are the endeavours of the display, how difficult it was to put together, how much of a challenge the planting has been, any new ideas or originality as well as overall impression.

There are times when having a curious pal comes in very useful.

As we moved slowly from one final exhibit to another we stopped at one, both bowled over by its simple beauty. Designed by Mark Gregory, it was called Welcome to Yorkshire.

 It was absolutely definitely our favourite, and guess what? We later found it was the winner of the Space to Grow Garden, People’s Choice Award. It also won a Gold Medal in the Show Gardens category, plus the Best Construction award.

We chuckled to ourselves as we left this famous showground. We may be lacking in horticultural knowledge, but we were confident we had a ‘good eye’ for a winner!

Our day had come to an end, our toes were a tiny bit sore, but our spirits were as high as can be. There were far too many exhibits to share with you, but I hope this selection shows you what a very special event it is. Thanks so much to my sis for this lovely present. Blooming Chelsea did us proud!

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