Last week was the Chelsea Flower Show. I aIways beam at the enthusiastic visitors who pour down the King’s Road on their way to the Show. (Love a good enthusiast!) But somehow this year the excitement has seemed a bit muted.
Normally the Flower Show People — you can tell them by the floral outfits, exciting hats and sensible shoes for hours of walking — are a pretty cheery bunch, even in the pouring rain. This time, the worst excess of the weather has been no more than overcast. But too many of the visitors have looked harassed.
It made me really grateful for the display at the end of Royal Avenue: a Mary Poppins of indigo flowers, Gladstone bag in hand, flying in to save the Mr Banks in all of us. Her author, P L Travers (her blue plaque currently obscured by builder’s fencing), lived two streets away in Smith Street,
Chelsea in Bloom
Mary Poppins, together with her accompanying carousel ponies, are entries in a floral street art competition, supported by the Cadogan Estate, in conjunction with the Royal Horticultural Society. Since 2006, it has become a traditional companion celebration to the Chelsea Flower Show itself.
This year’s theme is Flowers on Film. The organisers say it “promises stunning floral installations celebrating movie icons and all genres of film, creating a magical experience for visitors and locals alike.” Saving Mr Banks certainly inspires some hope for these uncertain times.
Admittedly there is a spectacular Little Mermaid arrangement, though our heroine to me looked more like a tough barmaid than the ethereal Ariel of the original Disney film. Maybe she’s closer to the version about to premiere, of which I have heard much.
And the substantial grouping of Lion King dramatis personae in Duke of York Square makes the incumbent statue of Sir Hans Sloane, looking away from the show-off animals, appear positively austere. “You are lesser things. I am not of your element.”
Gave me a good laugh, though. Which is as good as magic and sometimes more necessary.
A Bit of History of Chelsea…
These days the Chelsea Flower Show is thought to be a key event in the London social and cultural season. There will be smart clothes, champagne and royal patronage.
It was not always so. (Hint to Writers of Regency romance: beware of anachronism here!)
As all readers of Georgette Heyer know, the Season evolved over the 18th century as the period during which the aristocracy and gentry left their country estates and came to Town to catch up with the gossip, engage in politics and cultural activities and, incidentally, introduce daughters of marriageable age to suitable young men.
Would any one of Heyer’s characters have gone to the first meeting of the Horticultural Society of London, forerunner of the RHS, in 1804? (Mr Beaumaris, possibly? Arabella’s father was impressed by his intellect, after all.)
The instigator was John, son of Josiah Wedgwood, and he wanted to do what the Lunar Men had done – exchange ideas, publish papers and discuss them.
Three of the others were working horticulturalists – the Superintendent of Kew Gardens, the Superintendent of the gardens of St James’s and Kensington Palaces and nurseryman James Dickson, a founder member of the Linnean Society and a protegé of Banks’s. None of them was a dilettante.
Sadly, I’m not sure whether any of the above, with the possible exception of Banks, I suppose, would have got vouchers for Almacks.
And it was that hard-working man of vision, Prince Albert, not the Queen, who gave them their royal patent in 1864, so they became the Royal Horticultural Society.
In 1821 the young Society acquired some land in Chiswick from the Duke of Devonshire’s estate and, briefly, employed the brilliant Joseph Paxton – at least they did until the Duke pinched him to be (at the age of 20) Head Gardener at Chatsworth. (Paxton’s arrival there is a cracking story and even romantic – well worth reading. Truth is definitely stranger than fiction.)
From 1828 the Society began to hold fêtes in their Chiswick Garden. They added shows with competitions for flowers and vegetables from 1833, a clear forerunner of what occurs at the Chelsea Flower Show today. At the same time, they continued to run experiments on their own account.
The next year they held the Society’s first Great Spring Show. That continued until the Kensington site closed in 1882 when it moved to the gardens of the Inner Temple on the Victoria Embankment. Development and experiment continued at the Chiswick garden, however, and was maintained until 1904, when it moved out of London to Surrey, on the gift of Wisley from Sir Thomas Hanbury.
Harry Veitch had for many years run the successful and innovative James Veitch & Sons nurseries in the King’s Road. He did a deal with the Royal Hospital for use of their extensive grounds to host the Great Spring Show as a one-off experiment. He was knighted that year, too..
It was so successful, that in 1913, the RHS returned and the present Chelsea Flower Show began to take shape, including the royal patronage. The widowed Queen Alexandra attended with two of her children.
When I Went to the Chelsea Show
I’ve only been to the Chelsea Flower Show twice, in spite of living so close. It’s very crowded.(What can I say? I’m too short for crowds.)
The first time I was invited by a serious gardener who knew the ropes and guided me expertly. The following year, my mother said wistfully she’d really like to go, just once. My expert got me the tickets and gave me the best advice. Pick three things you really want to see. Pick your route. Go home before you’re too tired. “Oh,” he added, looking at my by now elderly mum, “watch out for the Duchesses. They come armed, especially on the last day when plants are given away. Umbrellas, you know.”
Fortunately we weren’t there on the last day. But we did encounter an umbrella or two, raised to clear the path of beady-eyed persons (mostly with cut glass accents Celia Johnson would envy) on a mission to get to the front of the crowd round a show garden.
Helpless with laughter, we threw in the towel and left before, as my mother said, we lost a knee cap.
The BBC does the Chelsea Flower Show proud, every year, both on television and, even more atmospherically, on radio.
The garden has been designed to offer tranquility and, in particular, to quiet the inner chatter. You can hear Beardshaw’s description at the link staring around 14.28 minutes. And it’s lovely.
STOP PRESS: After I’d written this, Libertà’s Joanna told me that this garden had won the BBC People’s Choice Award. See the Life Worth Living garden here
Chelsea Flower Show and Me
It moved me particularly because my mother, who loved her garden but was, at best, an erratic gardener, told me, after we’d been to the show, why it had been so important to her.
In 1940 her brother, a dispatch rider with the British Expeditionary Force in France, went missing during the chaos of retreat. She didn’t tell anyone. But all that summer she would come home from work and go straight out into the garden and work until the moon came up.
“Eventually, the Salvation Army found him. He’d been overtaken by the German advance and was a prisoner of war. Not good, of course, but at least he was safe and we could write.
“The garden never looked so good. It was a riot of colour. I’d weeded and pruned and dead-headed and mowed as if his life depended on it. Gardening kept me sane.”
I’ve gardened like that. And I think in 2023 a lot of us need get our hands in the hearth, or to step under a canopy of trees, and just let nature quieten that anxious inner monologue.
Pandemic, war, economic uncertainty, worldwide failure to address climate change… There’s a lot going on and none of it good. I sympathise with the Just Stop Oil protesters who threw orange paint over the RBC Brewin Dolphin Garden on Thursday. But how I wish they’d found a way to protest that didn’t just add to negative load.
I couldn’t help noticing how many closed businesses there are in the King’s Road. People need help, not threats.
Chelsea can be uplifting, though…
So I want to end with two things that I have found genuinely uplifting while I’ve been writing this blog. The first is another Chelsea in Bloom entry. Lloyds Bank in the Kings Road turned their famously rearing black horse logo into a dear little black pony, among simple garden and meadow flowers.
He is looking wistfully into their window. Ironic and gentle at the same time, this is a horse looking for company. I laughed but I also said, “Ah, bless.”
And the other is a 23-year-old British movie. It is similarly gentle, kind and ironic, but with a gritty edge that makes it all the sweeter. Also, it is inspired by a true story from the Chelsea Flower Show, when a group of prisoners entered their garden for a prize.
Helen Mirren is note perfect as the hyper-confident garden expert who is brilliant at what she wants but needs a quick kick up the arse in the relationship department. (She gets it and redeems herself. Very satisfying. Very, very funny.) Clive Owen is louche and lovely as a man who turns self-discovery into a mission to change the world and has a very decent crack at it. In fact the entire dramatis personae are total fruitcakes and every one a star performance.
And, of course, the flowers are beautiful.
You can watch it on Amazon now. Greenfingers. Enjoy!