The first time I “did Chelsea”, I think it was 2001 and I was very new to my job at Whichford. I spent a manic day with my colleagues in pouring rain and howling gales desperately stuffing plants into pots, balancing them on plinths and trying to arrange various props artfully in and around them. I shivered all the way home to the Cotswolds in the lorry.
I thought I’d show you some scenes from this year’s build-up, not from the garden I was working on (Rosy Hardy’s) but from all over the show ground. It’s the workers and volunteers who sleep on friends’ couches and trek into central London every day – these are the people who really make Chelsea Flower Show happen, the people who rarely get a name check but who work their whatsits off nevertheless.
Chelsea isn’t all wine and roses. Build-up can be hilariously good fun and for any keen horticulturist the sight of plants conjured from all over the world and the process of creating gardens from scratch in less than three weeks is fascinating. On the other hand it can be freezing cold, with a vicious wind sweeping off the Thames, or it can be boiling hot so that you spend all your time watering plants, and coughing up plane tree fluff and dust kicked up by the constant stream of delivery lorries.
If you want to work at Chelsea build-up, whether in a voluntary or a paid capacity, on a garden, a trade display or a marquee exhibit, you need various attributes, including the following:
A sense of humour. Smiles and laughter make light work.
Skills: carpentry, mosaics, plumbing, planting, driving HGVs, painting, erecting glasshouses, stonework, electrics, bodging. Proper craftspeople are a treasure, crafty bodgers are a boon.
The willingness to get dirty, but the sense not to leave muddy footprints on a pristine path.
Flexibility, and being unembarrassed about getting into some pretty strange positions.
Not minding unflattering/uncomfortable high viz gear and boots etc etc. Though it has to be said that some people rock the Chelsea build-up look better than others.
Physical strength may help, but stamina is vital, it’s a long haul, especially if you are there for the whole of build-up, some tasks will be hefty, and the days are long.
A liking for cake. Don’t be coy about calorie intake, you’ll need every one. Most exhibitors run on copious amounts of tea, fizzy drinks, cake and biscuits.
Willingness to do any menial jobs, from carrying stuff about to skip-diving, painting boards, sweeping and scrubbing. And more scrubbing.
Attention to detail. You may be asked to pick individual aphids off a tree without bruising its leaves. Every plant must have all dead heads and brown bits picked off or the judges may spontaneously combust. Titivation is key.
Thick skin – at some stage someone will, at the very least, say something tactless, and previously even-tempered people can become stressy and shouty. On no account snap back.
Plant knowledge – it really helps to know your Artemisia from your Elaeagnus so that the person who asked you to fetch a certain plant doesn’t have to stop what they are doing and come with you to show you which one they mean.
Being a tidy, trip hazard-aware worker, lost trowels are a flaming nuisance, broken ankles even more so.
The ability to hold back – fools rush in before they have checked with the boss – it’s not a “who can do most” competition. If you tidy up too manically, for example, because you haven’t anything to do right now, you can spoil somebody else’s system. Check that there is nothing obvious to do, then go for a little walk, come back and wait for instructions. On no account must you keep pestering the boss for tasks like a bored child might. Or sometimes if you stand and look for a while you can spot a problem and make a useful suggestion.
A head for heights – this should be coupled with a trusting nature as you may end up on a wobbly ladder held by a couple of your workmates.
A sense of humour.
Well said and well done! ps love that protea …… 🙂
Thanks Gill, I think it’s a Leucospermum. But don’t quote me on that. Anyway, I want one!
LikeLiked by 1 person
I was there today (Sunday) and in awe of ‘the workers’ and the brilliant site security and parking team. Such a brilliant atmosphere and such amazing display.
Yes, I think in a way, build-up is the best bit. Such an amazing transformation trick!
Hurrah for the workers
Great to highlight the many talented people who bring the designer’s vision to life. The hard work, long hours, teamwork, skill, experience and expertise of individuals and teams seldom gets highlighted, yet it literally ‘makes’ the event….Love your photos too… Hope you’ll post more as the show continues…@wannabeachelseavollie : )
Thanks Jo, more coming out bit by bit! I took a crazy number of photographs…
LikeLiked by 1 person
Looking forward to seeing them..
What great photos. Love seeing these behind the scenes shots. What do the workers do during Chelsea week? Catch up on their sleep ready for the dismantling or are they about titivating some more first thing every morning?
Thanks Ceri, it varies – some people have a big team, so different people man the garden/display during Chelsea week, then another team takes over for break-down time. Others just manage with the help of friends and volunteers, then try to catch up on sleep afterwards. There’s a lot of early morning titivating and re-stocking. It’s hard work – and all at a busy time for gardeners even without the added pressure of Chelsea! I think you have to love it to do Chelsea year after year, if you stop loving it it’s time to stop doing it.