The rain is always with us

This picture is of one of the very first shows organized by the RHS.

It took place in Chiswick way before the show moved to the Royal Hospital a hundred years ago. 1829 was not a good year for weather and the show was disastrously rained out. The Morning Posts reported that “ …standing nearly ankle-deep in water, coming from wet gravel; shrieks were dreadful, and the loss of shoes particularly annoying! Even when parties got possession of standing room at the several tables, what was even then their situation? . . . the tents were erected in a valley, to which all the water from the high grounds found its way.”

No fête was held in 1830.

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Lupins in 1934

The flower show has always been crowded.

In 1979 the showground became so full that the turnstiles had to be closed before the whole thing deteriorated into a big floral Black Hole of Calcutta. A cap was then set of 40,000 visitors per day with all tickets sold in advance and this stays the same today.

Monday is reserved for press, royalty and a generous dollop of photogenic celebrities. Tuesday and Wednesday are for RHS Members only and the rest of the week the gates open to the general public.

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Conifers and cascades

This is the President of the RHS chatting with Ken Aslet who was in charge of the Rock Garden at Wisley.

In those days the Society only had one garden (Rosemoor, Harlow Carr and Hyde Hall were later acquisitions) and it exhibited at Chelsea. There is very little comparison between this and the slick modern show gardens we see today.

Proof, if proof were ever needed, that gardens are just as susceptible to fashion as are trousers.

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Another fine mess

There is something a little bit Laurel and Hardy about these two gardeners; as if they are going to turn around and knock somebody off their feet.

Not to mention the Fair Isle knitwear: so infinitely preferable to a hi-viz vest.

This fabulous image is on the cover of Brent Elliott’s excellent new book on Chelsea (which you can buy easily by hitting the barrow button just above this caption).

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Hats that match

Traditionally, Chelsea marked the beginning of the London Season, which, of course, no longer exists – except in the eyes of the corporate sponsors of international Polo tournaments. Back then, though, the Season was a big deal, the chance for the aristocracy to parade their marriageable daughters around town in the hope that, come September, they would be engaged to an eligible chap.

The culmination was the presentation of the young women – or debutantes – to the monarch at court. That was knocked on the head in 1958 but up until then Chelsea (along with events such as Royal Ascot, the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, Henley Regatta and Wimbledon) was a highlight in a girl’s journey towards a society marriage.

Chelsea Flower Show is still a dressy occasion especially at the beginning of the week though hats like these are more a curiosity than the norm.

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Dancing in the rain

Although this is indeed the hundredth Chelsea there has been a summer show organized by the RHS since 1827. The first was held in Chiswick and bore some marked similarities. It covered about the same area (12 hectares) and it included floral pavilions, flower arranging, and catering (featuring lamb tarts, jellies, tongues and creams).

Some marquees were adapted for dancing so as to amuse visitors during rainy spells. Now that is definitely something worth re-introducing.

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Rocks and a hard place

Of one thing you can be sure, at some point somebody, somewhere will say “This has to be the best Chelsea yet”. This is a variation of a phrase first coined in the 1960s by Lord Aberconway, President of the RHS from 1961-83, (an extraordinarily long tenure – nowadays it is about three years).

“I think I can say,” he intoned without fear of contradiction*, “that this is the finest Chelsea Flower Show ever”.

Some years are judged better than others although, to be honest, this is less to do with the quality of gardens and more to do with the weather. A warm sunny Chelsea with lots of Pimms and ice cream always seems better than one ripped raw by wind and rain.

One thing is pretty certain, this garden would have lost a lot of points by today’s judging standards for the paucity of planting. You simply cannot get away with that much soil on show. * Contradiction of the President in those days was only for the brave. As one former Vice President John Sales says when talking about judging, “Lord Aberconway was not a patient listener.”

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Royal progress

There has always been the ritual royal visit to Chelsea. Nowadays this takes place late on Monday when the rabble of journalists has been swept out of the gate and a steady stream of large black cars pull up to the Bull Ring Gate to disgorge various members of the Royal Family with assorted aides, equerries and ladies in waiting.

They are then taken in hand by the more responsible members of the RHS Council and are ushered off around the showground. The Queen arrives last and is taken round the show by the RHS President. The visit lasts a couple of hours and culminates with tea in a marquee set up by the Royal Hospital.

It is a more relaxed outing than it used to be. This is Queen Mary accompanied by a distinctly nervous looking RHS Council Member.

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Roses are red

One should not forget that this is not just the site of the greatest flower show in the world but also home to the Chelsea Pensioners. The Hospital was founded in 1682 by Charles II to house and care for old soldiers. Sir Christopher Wren was commissioned to design and build the hospital, a job that was finally finished in 1692 and became home (albeit quite a spartan home) to 476 Pensioners.

They are familiar figures around the streets of Chelsea in their scarlet coats and it is alleged that no Chelsea Pensioner has had to buy their own drinks in a pub for many a decade! During the flower show they are in constant demand for photo opportunities. The crowning moment must be that in the 2012 show when garden designer Diarmuid Gavin lined every level of his towering pyramid with smiling scarlet coated Pensioners.

Spiny problems

If you go and look at the cacti on display at the show this year you will be struck by the careful and immaculate way they have been laid out: ironed black cloths, smoothed grit and perfectly calligraphed regulation labels.

In 1964 it appears that the nurseries were a bit more relaxed with their display techniques but it is still pretty impressive. Cacti live such a long time and grow so slowly that some of the plants are regular attendees at the show – I happen to know, for example, that one particular specimen, has been to 40 Chelsea Flower Shows with the same exhibitor.

It must be able to find its own way there by now.

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Girl power

This is 1935 and old boys are clearly enjoying watching the two girls at work. The gender balance at Chelsea is always a bit odd: the vast majority of the gardening audience is female and yet if you wander along Main Avenue this year looking at show gardens the designers are almost all men – the notable exceptions being Jo Thompson and Jinny Blom. Dunno why, I wish more women would apply for Chelsea as there are whole cupboards full of excellent female designers.

Part of the problem may well be the unquenchable demand from sponsors for medals. To companies who have spent thousands and thousands of pounds on building a garden at Chelsea in order to associate themselves with the very best nothing but a Gold will do. Consequently they tend to commission only experienced Chelsea designers and, at the moment, most of them are men.

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Sundry thoughts

Chelsea is not all about glamorous gardens and headily scented flowers, it is also has a deeply practical side. In order to make gardens and grow plants gardeners need kit. As a result the fringes of the show are filled with merchants selling everything a gardener could possibly need – and more.

There are huge lawn mowers, treehouses, benches of all description, containers, sculptures (to suit all tastes) and gazebos. On a smaller scale there are trowels, gloves, propagators, boots, dibbers, birdfeeders, secateurs, lights and innumerable other essentials. While you cannot buy plants from Chelsea you can at least take home a hand painted plant label.

The people who man these stands work unbelievably long days often a long way away from the legendary Chelsea lavatory queues. My favourite is a woman who I have watched over the years cheerfully demonstrating umpteen times a day, a mechanism for lifting and lowering a hanging basket. I really hope she makes her fortune.

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For many years most show gardens were rock gardens, purely because that was what people liked and the nurserymen and garden builders who came to the show were eager to drum up business.

There was always a rock garden at Chelsea right up to the 1990s – usually built by either Douglas Knight or Peter Tinsley. And, without fail, they would sell at least two or three gardens off the back of their displays.

This shot was taken in 1931 before days of mobile cranes and hydraulic rams. In those days building a garden was all down to the skill and craftsmanship of men in waistcoats and big caps.

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Bold and brassy

The thing that excites most gardeners – much more than slick design, cavorting celebrities, botanical rarities or even the prospect of being within bun throwing distance of Alan Titchmarsh – is colour.

Some may say that this sort of thing is brash and vulgar.  The sophisticated may sneer at clashing cerises and clarets but colour excites people on a primitive level.  It is no surprise that after the depredations and sheer monochrome dullness of the war years that all people really wanted was a splash of cheery colour in their gardens. Battalions of marigolds, petunias and, of course, the daddy of all tender perennials…the dahlia.

This picture is from the 1990s when, as you can see, we still flocked to the bright lights.

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Strawberry fields

The central feature at Chelsea is the Floral Pavilion which contains the crème-de-la-crème of the nursery trade.

The pavilion itself was a venerable canvas tent that creaked in winds, baked in the sun and dripped in the rain. However, because of its low ceiling, the smell was staggering. The formidable lady telling Prince Philip about strawberries is Beatrix Havergal who is dressed in her customary collar and tie.

Miss Havergal ran the Waterperry Horticultural School near Wheatley. All her pupils were women who were decked out in distinctive green uniforms. The school’s Chelsea exhibit was always a tower of perfect Royal Sovereign strawberries and they won 15 successive gold medals from 1955 until 1970. The following year the school was closed down.

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Brollies out

Chelsea weather is never predictable. Last year it was freezing cold during build-up (the two weeks leading up to the show) and absolutely boiling hot during the show; it could just as easily have been the other way around.

One thing that is almost guaranteed to happen is rain. The clever designers (aka the hardened regulars) fix it so that their gardens include some sort of artfully arranged weatherproof gazebo or summerhouse into which they can flee when the rain starts.

Many visitors use this opportunity to take refuge in the Great Pavilion but others – as if to prove yet again that the British gardener is a hardy soul –just carry on regardless. The danger then is losing an eye to an ill-judged umbrella.

Mind where you tread

In 1931 they were a lot more relaxed with their plants. There is a large conifer lying in the mud and other precious plants spread about where any large booted builder could accidentally stand on them (although the bricklayer on the left appears to be wearing a bow tie so he is likely to be very careful where he stands).

Today one of the large show gardens will require thousands of plants (many more than they will ever use) to be cossetted, primped and carefully paced so that they peak at precisely the right moment.

Irises are wrapped in cotton wool and coaxed into flower with hair dryers and enormous trees are shipped in temperature controlled juggernauts from the far corners of Europe. It is a huge exercise in pitch perfect logistics.

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