The Greatest Flower Show in the World
For about the last ten years I have been an annual visitor to the Chelsea Flower Show in London – this feast for the soul from which I and countless others derive the greatest joy not just from the dazzling display of perfect flowers and plants but from witnessing the sheer ingenuity of the garden designers who create the most magnificent gardens, this confluence between the miracle of nature coupled with man’s infinite creativity and labour. At the onset of May, the excitement that Chelsea is on the horizon perks me up enormously despite the reality of an unpredictable English spring although I have always been lucky and each year seem to have chosen the perfect day for my visit.
So what is the Chelsea Flower Show? Begun in 1862 but since 1927 housed at the Royal Hospital Gardens, it is without doubt the most prestigious horticultural show in the world. It showcases the very best quality plants and flowers, and the show gardens are a sight to behold, they are the highlight of the event demonstrating the skills of the greatest landscape designers in the world all enclosed on this eleven acre site. The show runs for five days each year towards the end of May and visitors total about 200,000. If you are able to go on the last day of the show, tons of items from the displays are sold off to visitors which is why the Saturday evening Tube is full of people clutching enormous plants, a somewhat incongruous sight for London’s tube passengers, especially the tourists who seem a little bewildered to be sharing their journey with spikey yuccas, giant delphiniums, and industrial sized ferns.
Widespread television coverage, notably the BBC, does this formidable job with aplomb bringing detailed footage of the display gardens to our TV screens coupled with the invaluable commentary because the thinking behind each garden is explained as each one has a back story sometimes with historical, cultural or geographic references. And there is plenty of room for whimsy too, only a few years ago was the ban lifted on garden gnomes – though I defy you to spot one.
Dizzy with inspiration as I leave the show I am mesmerised by the abundance of flowers and plants, even fully grown trees transplanted to this site for just five days. It literally takes your breath away. Satisfied with at least a couple of hundred photographs on my iPhone which will keep me amused on train journeys or in waiting rooms, I depart with a broad satisfied smile.
Sad to say I’m not an avid gardener in the sense of being out in all weathers sorting seedlings, planting, propagating and weeding and so on but I do enjoy digging up that patch of earth to plant the latest purchase which is usually a small shrub or flower. Regrettably I lack the imagination or creativity (or the budget) to get down and dirty and experiment to any great extent. Over the years I’ve planted dozens of shrubs and flowers and lost many on the way, but I am not deterred when some don’t thrive because it’s a metaphor for life is it not, the ebb and flow and the cycle of life, thriving or failing, beginning or ending.
Each year I have brought either friend or family and each time I watch bemused as they are enraptured, the wide eyed delighted faces on first sight of a display garden evoking Provence, or perhaps an Australian outback garden, a Maltese quarry garden, or even a small Japanese tranquil idyll measuring only about 20 foot square. And then the questions, how is this possible, this miracle of nature and man’s ability to push all boundaries to carry off this great horticulture feat. How could a garden established here during the last nineteen days look as though it has been in place for decades even centuries. Stand at the perimeter of a mediterranean garden and you are transported, or a Yorkshire seaside scene in the middle of central London complete with water, sand and pebbles and a boat all accompanied to the sound of seagulls. The Irish garden designer, Diarmaid Gavin, suspended a garden in the air held by giant cranes, oh yes, there is room for the avant-garde too. The sheer beauty of the small artisan or cottage garden can be striking in simplicity but still have enormous impact on the viewer.
For the first time this year it occurred to me that Chelsea is indeed a spiritual experience hence the reason for my return year after year, something that had not occurred to me previously, maybe because I was alone with my own thoughts for the first time as the private personal worries were locked out at the turnstiles. For various reasons, I had not planned to attend this year, but at the last minute managed to get a single ticket for entry at 5pm for three hours only. And what a joyous three hours feasting on the beauty of this paradise viewing all 25 or 30 gardens at the quietest part of the day. Yet when the first warning bell went as we neared closing time, I stood undaunted by the Provence show garden and managed to stay put till the very last minute virtually alone apart from security (no photo can do it justice though I am adding my best attempt below). The moment when that elusive peace permeates the body, mentally, physically and emotionally when the senses are satiated and the sun continues its descent. That solitary moment in this tranquil abundant setting and at one with nature, I reached out to touch the flowers and inhale the lavender and that was when I realised that this too is a spiritual experience.
16 June 2017