THE PERFECT ESCAPE: THE CHELSEA FLOWER SHOW
It has been said that the English are mad about gardens. I found that out the hard way, when a humorless guard at the Chelsea Flower Show held my press pass to a blue London sky for scrutiny.
“An obvious forgery,” he pronounced it, waving past the toffs in the straw boaters and the pink cheeked ladies in vintage Laura Ashley dresses. You would have thought I was trying to crash the farewell performance of the Stones. Or the inevitable reunion of the Spice Girls. Not a mere celebration of shrubbery and shiso.
If you’re the type who has always wanted to sip Pimms No. 1 before noon while sniffing roses and pondering the merits of a new pair of sequiturs, then the Chelsea Flower Show is for you. It’s a vintage London Underground poster come to life, with hordes of fashionably dressed people pouring from the Sloane Square tube station and slipping out of black cabs for four days of lupins, lilacs and lilies. Pushing past the scalpers and clutching the thick catalog, they prowl, looking, smelling and pointing at foxgloves, ferns and Forget-Me-Nots arrayed at hundreds of exhibit stands. And now I was accused of crashing it.
“Oh, come on,” I protested. “It’s real. And it’s just a flower show.”
He glared. Now I had insulted him, and I thought of that immortal line from Lou Reed’s “Vicious:” “You hit me with a flower.”
But in the end, after further scrutiny of my pass, and a consultation with a more level-headed floral gatekeeper, he grudgingly admitted me to the hallowed grounds of the Royal Hospital in the borough of Chelsea for the annual Chelsea Flower Show.
Since 1913, the Chelsea Flower Show has been the prize bloom of the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS). Despite my taunting, I knew full well that Chelsea was more than just a flower show. A flower show is what your local PTA arranges in the high school parking lot. The Chelsea Flower Show, spread over three and a half acres of grounds, is to flowers what Henley is to crew and Ascot is to racing. It draws thousands of visitors, it’s televised live for hours every day, and it always sells out. This year, you’ll be able to download RHS videos of the show and watch close-ups of tomatoes and bamboo on your iPod. The show receives a private visit from Queen Elizabeth II that occurs at the exact same time every year. In fact, you could set your watch by her Majesty’s tiptoe through the tulips.
I sipped my Pimms No 1., a bitter gin concoction that has much to do with keeping the upper classes tight-lipped, and strolled among the nearly two dozen show gardens. These sizeable plots are elaborately conceived visions, usually paid for by corporate sponsors. For the most part, illusion is the abiding principle. One garden looked like Scottsdale, another like Scotland, with just a thin fence between them. There were streams, ponds, boulders and cacti, all intended to mirror a reality far from central London, and all built to stand for less than a week. Like Karl Lagerfeld’s “Le Bosquet de Chanel,” a trim box parterre enclosed by beech hedges, a planting of white flowers and a classical statue that cost an alleged one million pounds.
Or “Impressions of Highgrove,” modeled after Prince Charles estate, though I confess it was hard to imagine the Prince and Camilla trudging around in muddy Wellies, trowels in hand, trying to get the primroses just right. But I could be wrong.
In the Great Pavilion, men in blazers and boaters paused before towers of scarlet red tomatoes, momentarily took their cell phones away from their ears, and spoke to their female companions, who spent most of their time furiously taking notes.
“Ooh, look at the baby aubergines,” cooed one woman to her friend.
“Ooh, smashing,” came the reply.
Courtesy of the National Farmers Union, the eggplants were indeed perfect. So were the bumble bees from the British Beekeepers Association and the leafy fronds grown by a man who called himself ” a big cheese in the hosta world.” As I pondered that mixed metaphor, I learned more about Welsh onions than I thought was possible, which wasn’t difficult considering that I had never heard of a Welsh onion before that morning.
I wandered through the 200 odd commercial stands, where I looked at sundials, tried on a pair of Wellies and bought an out-of-print history, “The Chelsea Flower Show” by Hester Marsden-Smedley, largely for the author’s name alone. I sat on a riding lawnmower, just imagining my imaginary estate in Dorset. I looked at awnings, greenhouses, teak benches and stone cherubs awaiting a home. I swung a croquet mallet, handled clay pots and chatted with a woman about the “Year Book of the Heather Society.”
A brass band had struck up and people were picnicking on a lawn, sipping Veuve Cliquot, and watching a wall of televisions as the show was broadcast live all over this sceptered isle to gardeners who were unlucky enough not to be in Chelsea. Terence Conran was due to appear at any minute to sign copies of his book. The crowd was getting thicker, pressing to see the exhibits of bamboo and hydrangeas, tapping watering cans and examining an exotic import, an array of aluminum mail boxes from America.
“They do well in Germany” confessed the stall owner.
Maybe it was the Pimms No. 1, the growing number of tweedy “Country Life” types or the copy of “A Year in the Shrub Garden” that someone tried to sell me. But I was somewhere between thermometers and sheep shears when I realized that I’d smelled enough roses for one day. As I stood in line for a cab, a dead ringer for Margaret Rutherford in a floppy hat asked me, “Well, young man, did you learn anything?”
Learn anything? I had enough ideas to transform a swath of Cambodian jungle into Versailles and back again.
“Let me tell you about Welsh onions,” I began.
(All photos courtesy of the RHS)