Gardening enthusiasts have flocked to the grounds of the Royal Hospital Chelsea, close to the River Thames, since 1912 for the annual Royal Horticultural Society’s Chelsea Flower Show in May. It is the most prestigious flower show in the world and the famous, privileged and not so famous, indeed the pretty ordinary, clamour and pay good money to join the crowds inside. Getting into it, even with a ticket – and if you haven’t bought a ticket months in advance don’t even bother to show up – is akin to arriving at Oxford Circus tube station at peak rush hour and trying to get near a train.
I’ve been to Chelsea a number of times but not for a while, and have more recently gone to its sister show at Hampton Court Palace. Hampton Court is a more leisurely affair. There’s much more space and you can easily spent a relaxing day there, finding quiet corners to drink coffee, eat a picnic under the shade of a tree and chat, before moving on to another garden or plant stall. Chelsea is mayhem. Very civilised mayhem, with orderly queues and people waiting patiently to take their turn at the front of a crowd looking at a show garden, but still pretty chaotic. It’s not a day for relaxation. But it is most definitely a day for inspiration.
I’ve enjoyed my visits to Hampton Court but have never felt it comes near to the excitement and wonderful creativity of Chelsea. Chelsea is where you go to be inspired. If you want to find great ideas to transform your own garden, if you want to see bold, glorious show gardens, this is the place to be. I remember my first visit when my kids were still quite young and my son keen on kicking a ball around our small London garden. I started cutting into the lawn and planting more things. I was itching to do more with my garden. My son had to settle for being taken down the road to the park with his ball and he did complain about it. But now a grown-up married dad with a growing love for gardening, perhaps he’s beginning to understand. At the beginning of the year I offered to get tickets to Chelsea so we could go together and share garden ideas. But as it turned out, sadly he was unwell at the last-minute so I ended going on my own, with promises to buy tickets again next year.
The flower show runs from Monday until Saturday. Monday is VIP day when it’s full of royalty and the famous. All the royals turn up, including the Queen and Prince Philip, plus an array of actors, movie stars, rock and pop stars, TV celebrities, and business giants of the world. The next two days are for people with membership to the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) and the final days any member of the public can buy a ticket to attend.
I went to look at the show gardens first. This one based on an abandoned Maltese limestone quarry won a gold medal and ‘best in show’.
I have to confess it didn’t really appeal to me but I loved the next garden I looked at, Breaking Ground, which also deservedly won a gold medal. Judges give out medals on the 2nd morning and it’s a really big thing for all the garden designers. To win a gold medal is a huge honour.
This one was inspired by the Yorkshire coast. I felt it was barely a garden, but quite nice to look at.
I liked this next one – Beneath the Mexican Sky – one of the smaller gardens but a nice use of colour and although it’s Mexican, it reminded me of being in Marrakesh.
Here are photos are some other gardens and things I saw as I walked round:
And in the Grand Pavilion these lovely flowers:
I had a lovely afternoon, even by chance bumping into a friend who I sat down with and talked to for a few minutes. I really don’t have the stamina to do a whole day though. Plenty of people do but I find it too overwhelming and quite tiring making one’s way through dense crowds. However, I do love going; I love the excitement that fills the air and always feel inspired by something I’ve seen. I have to say I didn’t think it was the best Chelsea I’ve been to. There were fewer show gardens this year than normal and I didn’t think quite so much in the Grand Pavilion. But it’s always good to go and hopefully I’ll be back there next year with son as planned for some mutual gardening appreciation.