The two ladies behind me stretched to try to see over the crowd in front of Diarmud Gavin’s garden. Did he get anything? I don’t think so. Can you see the sign? No. I don’t think he got anything. I couldn’t resist. I turned around to tell them I think he got a silver-gilt. Aaah they said. Ta.
Chelsea. The Flower Show. It’s easy to forget it’s for a charity it has become such a landmark event. The great and the good of all things floral and garden feature flock here every year. This is the hard core, the militant wing of seed growers and Iris fanciers (of which I now realise I am one). Where else will you find the Delphinium Society, indeed any Delphinium Society? Or a stream of people who all notice the same new and interesting pale blue flower and who all ask it’s name – it turns out to be flax.
The Show has a ritual all of it’s own, and it is vital to join in and do the rites as proscribed to get the full effect.
We weren’t entirely sure which tube station to get off at, just somewhere after Victoria. We needn’t have worried. At Sloane Square station elegant posters told us to ‘alight here’ for the show.
We could have guessed anyway had we looked at the platform, clearly awash with people kitted out for the show. It’s a tribe, the dress code is clear. Summer frock. Sun hat. Roomy shoulder bag and sensible shoes. The truly organised bring a collapsible plastic trolley with wheels.
Outside the station the procession of sunhats and florals drifted along a couple of side streets to the main gates. Touts begged us for spare tickets or tried to sell us extras. The papers had reported these were now changing hands for six times the original price. Suddenly Chelsea was the hottest and hippest ticket in town.
A queue had formed for the free canvas bag with the picture of an Iris. But it was hot, we headed for the grassy bit near the bandstand to have a little think and read the catalogue to plan our campaign.
The first priority was to work out how soon we could reasonably have a Pimms. This settled, we headed for the show gardens first, followed by the Grand Pavilion.
It was hot. Incredibly hot. And crowded. The sun baked down on us. We soldiered on. By the afternoon the sunshine and walking were taking their toll. I expect the couple of Pimms helped. Along with many others we found a gap in the crowd on a grassy spot under the shade of a tree and lay down to take a power nap. The band played Duke Ellington and Forties songs. Naturally I got up looking like a lobster.
Strangely, the ladies loos deserve a mention. Usually the bane of these events is the dreaded portaloo. But on this occasion no such trauma. Inside a very large tent were more than enough cubicles, so the queues were quick. But the tour de force was the indoor fountain where ladies washed their hands, with a selection of scented hand gels, all bathed in mellow light from the canvas roof. It was really very pleasant!
We all assiduously collected the plant lists from the gardens and all asked the same questions. There were three deep at each so a bit of shuffling required to get close. The overall impression of the gardens this year was of pale mauve and white. The other interesting theme was the use of plants not usually associated with flower beds, the aforementioned Flax was a show stealer a delicate star petaled flower but with an electric tang that made sure it stood out adding a bright zing to the planting. . Another plant – Giant Sea Kale – was allowed to flower into dramatic statuesque bundles of white flowers looking a lot like a gigantic gypsophelia. Grasses and ferns featured too. Water was generally in straight edged ponds and still. The exception to this was Gavin’s huge pyramid of planted terraces, which I suspect worked best looking out from the centre.
The nurseries have their displays of show plants and the latest varieties inside the big tent of the Grand Marquee. The burgundy Iris was here again and a stunning almost black frilled edge tulip. A display of primula was almost surreal the white centres were so sharp.
Saturday is the last day of the show and at the end of the day the flowers and plants are sold off but only after 4pm. Before that people can book their plant on some stalls with little tags being tied around the stems, but for others you just have to queue.
The tannoy crackled into life across the Grand Marquee. A fission of excitement rippled over the queue of ladies in summer frocks. We were ready for the off. The posh RHA voice announced ‘The Sell Off will begin at the sounding of the bell’. The gong went off. And at once all over the tent plants began to float upwards gently and drift over the ropes to the waiting outstretched hands of delighted gardeners. It had begun. From this point on the whole edifice of flowers begins to disassemble itself as people and plants mix together and everyone heads for the exits.
Outside all along the Kings Road the plants float along above the heads of the crowds, bobbing and waving towards pubs and tubes. Recent visitors nod to each other in acknowledgment spotting the tell tale signs; that bag, a plant on the tube, a rare occasion of strangers in London connecting. We ended the day in a local very traditional pub, the next table along being shared with a couple of ornamental trees.
Another year another show; roll on next year.
Camilla Fanning 2012
For La Flaneur
© Camilla Fanning 2012