Taking a rain check at Chatsworth

Press days at RHS flower shows are always a mixed bag for me. I am inspired and enthused by torrents of horticultural excellence, but occasionally I feel jaded and rather used, a bit stupid for going along with all the hoo-ha. Yesterday was no exception.

I’ve got a bad feeling about this…

The forecast for Chatsworth’s Press Day was dire. Strong, swirling gusts of wind and pitiless rain. Quite apart from the mental checklist of wellies, coat, plastic bags, change of clothes, coffee thermos and something to put under the wheels of the car in case of parking quagmires, I knew that the journey was going to take a good three hours in blinding motorway lorry spray. Still it’s a new show and I was curious to see it. Besides, when people have made the effort to make something extraordinary in adverse conditions I think they deserve some attention.

Not looking too inviting

I set off at 6.30am (pretty good for me) and with the help of the omniscient alien who barked directions from my phone arrived three hours later, pumped with traffic adrenalin. Chatsworth was crouched under turbulent grey skies and partly covered by scaffolding. The showground looked small and cowed as I looked down from the hillside parking, never mind, there were floral treasures to be found.

Not a high heels and frocks kind of day.

I decided to look at show gardens and outdoor displays first. Not because they are my favourite bit but because the rain was relatively light and I knew the forecast was worse for the middle of the day. I could take refuge in the floral marquees later, chat to growers and add to my vast planty wishlist. But where were the show gardens? The programme I had picked up from the press tent had no map in it and I couldn’t see anything resembling a show garden (mind you, sometimes it is hard to tell…).


Jonathan Moseley and Pip Bensley on the floral bridge at RHS Chatsworth Flower Show


It was easy to spot Jonathan Moseley’s flower creations on the Palladian-style bridge across the River Derwent in the centre of the showground. I found him there, sheltering with Pip Bensley another floral artist and horticulturist, who teaches at the same online school as me. They were in great spirits, despite the rain and wind whipping down the river valley. The huge swags on the bridge were holding firm – a testament to floristry skills, and there was lots of lovely detail. I had a quick chat but a proper photographer wanted a clear shot and so I promised myself I would be back to look again.

Bouncy glasshouse from the floral bridge

The bouncy castle nearby was actually an inflatable tribute to Joseph Paxton’s famous Chatsworth glasshouse  – I had heard about this and so popped in – it housed an intriguing art installation involving a disco ball, and impressive beds of exotics, including a display about Musa cavendishii, created by the Chatsworth gardening team. Carol Klein was about to start recording in there so I made a mental note to come back and look properly when the rain set in.

Exotic and educational – I saved this for later

Eventually I found a map and saw that most of the gardens were on the house side of the river, so I crossed another bridge. Jo Thompson’s Freeform garden flowed alongside the river and although the planting was beautiful close up I might have missed it in the gloom were it not for the ballet performance by dancers from London Contemporary Ballet Theatre. I was a bit ashamed of myself for only noticing the dancers but their performance barefoot on wet grass was elegant and expressive and I stayed to watch. I also enjoyed watching the professional photographers making sure they got good shots after the performance, the dancers co-operating with good grace to enhance the garden in spite of the cold wind and rain.

“Can you do that bendy thing you did earlier?” Co-operative contemporary dancers in Jo Thompson’s garden. They were very careful not to step on the plants.

Hardworking ballet feet

I found another cluster of gardens. Still there was a problem of scale, they looked tiny in the vast landscape bowl of Chatsworth’s grounds. Paul Hervey-Brookes’s Quarry Garden was enormous but didn’t look it. Luckily the stark walls (deliberately brutalist in style) formed a strong enough backdrop to it made it stand out, as the planting was superb. Paul waved but was busy keeping his hard landscaping clean so I didn’t stop to chat for long.

Paul looking cheery in spite of the weather. I’ve just seen that he won a gold medal, Best Show Garden, and the constructors (Gareth Wilson) got Best Construction. Congratulations!

Paul’s planting blowing inside out. I’m afraid my photography skills are not up to making this look as good as it did in real life.


Another beautifully constructed and planted garden, the Wedgwood Garden by Sam Ovens. I had to crop in close to avoid visual detritus around it. Gold medal.

It was also hard to take pictures without a bright white plastic shelter, a metal barrier, plastic sheeting or a toilet block featuring in the background. I felt more attention could have been given to keeping this kind of stuff away from exquisitely crafted gardens and some of the other outdoor exhibits.  I suppose there was more detritus because of the weather, but I think the layout could be improved to give a more satisfying visual experience and more flow to the visit. I think the shape of the site could be much better used, but this is the first RHS Chatsworth show, so I think niggles can be ironed out another time.

A mix of ornamentals and edibles (from Le Manoir) in the Belmond garden by Butter Wakefield. Relaxed and bucolic.

Butter Wakefield’s Belmond garden cleverly enclosed itself enough to create its own little world and it was possible to get away from the visual noise. It was good to meet Butter, a sparky American lady,  we worked for the same company about 25 years ago (you don’t forget a name like Butter) but never actually met. I hung around to see James Alexander-Sinclair who was frozen but as debonair as ever (“I thought a thick three piece tweed suit would be sufficient for a June day”) and to watch more bally-hoo with Raymond Blanc. I admire M. Blanc not just for his food but for the way he celebrates his staff at Le Manoir and for his skill at talking enthusiastically and charmingly about any given subject to any microphone thrust into his face. I wanted to shake his hand but I didn’t dare barge in.

There was lots of appealing detail in Butter Wakefield’s garden. This also won a gold medal.


I took refuge on Tanya Batkin’s garden. I wanted to have a good look at this one because the planting was entirely in custom-made containers on wheels – perfect for “Generation Rent”. Edibles and ornamentals were combined to give a funky and adaptable space. I thought this was a clever garden, and together with other garden bloggers we demonstrated what a good place it was to sit and have a laugh with friends. Alan Titchmarsh swept by, looking like the caped crusader of the gardening world in a flowing tweed creation but I was having too much fun to scuttle after him and take photos. Someone else will have.

Tanya Batkin’s Moveable Feast garden. She won a silver medal, I think she was unlucky not to have got silver-gilt as the garden really fulfilled its brief.


Tanya demonstrating the fact that those containers really can be moved around

Eventually the gaggle of bloggers and tweeters started to disperse, the rain set in, a golden cow, a palm tree and several signs blew over, and I thought about moving on to the marquees. It was then we were told that the marquees were closed for safety reasons and that the show was closing at 1pm due to “adverse weather conditions”. Nooooo!

Lee Bestall’s cows were so shocked by the moos of early closure that one of them fainted. Experience Peak District and Derbyshire Garden, Silver-Gilt (aptly enough). Coming to the show was certainly an experience.

That left half an hour to see (let alone find out more about) the well-dressing, the Perfect for Pollinators container competition and anything else. I could have cried.

I’d never seen well-dressing up close before. The floral mosaics were beautiful, with amazing detail.

Perfect for Pollinators. Unless there’s a storm…

Fine weather for ducks to go shopping for garden furniture. Just send him the bill.

I plodded along mud-lined walkways towards the exit and paused wistfully by the door of one of the marquees. I told the security man blocking the door about my long drive and to my astonishment he said “OK, you can come in with me for five minutes”. I hurtled round, snatching a few photos. The colours! The scents! The unfamiliar varieties! The lack of visitors or… exhibitors! The scary groaning noises of the marquee! They were right to close it. I sloshed back to the car.

Congratulations to all the exhibitors who did a fine job  and kept smiling in spite of the weather – I wish I could have come back later in the week to see you in sunshine and show off your work a bit better!

The Kevock stand in one of the marquees. Normally I’d spend a good half an hour just looking at this stand.

Front door container style from Bakewell









Front garden inspiration, Bakewell

Hard landscaping flair, Bakewell

Superbly executed municipal planting, Bath Gardens, Bakewell

Water features and wildlife consideration, Bakewell. Is that duck stalking me?

Then, unwilling to give up and go straight home I went to Bakewell and in spite of the rain found exactly the same sort of inspiration that I would find at a flower show. Only phone pictures (too wet for the DSLR) but enough to illustrate the fact that if you are in the right frame of mind you can glean new ideas anywhere.










Sensing my combined disappointment and thirst for fresh experience the little alien in my phone took me on a satnav safari up into the hills of the Peak District, along craggy lanes lined with alarmingly crumbling trees and carpeted with shredded foliage. I glimpsed luminous green, rolling landscape against slate skies, stitched by tempting footpaths. I’ll be back.

A peek at the Peak District, glorious even in filthy weather

There were even real cows, none of which fell over.



Categories: Container gardening, Flower shows, Gardens, SeasonsTags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. A lovely, positive review of what must have been a disappointing day. It shows there is much to delight, even when the weather conspires against a show. I hear there have been traffic problems today, so here’s hoping these wrinkles can be ironed out for next time. Derbyshire is a wonderful county – make a note to go back around this time of the year when the well dressing actually happens in the villages. Buxton is great for horticultural treats as well as those you found in Bakewell and Hardwick Hall is well worth a visit as well as a full look around Chatsworth itself. The kitchen garden is my favourite there.


  2. Great blog! I love the way you write. I fear I may experience the same weather, when I go tomorrow (Thursday). 😫


    • Thank you Kathy. I write as I find, and have been told I write how I speak, which I suppose makes sense. I hope the weather surprises you in a good way, I’m sure the showground is transformed with a bit of sunshine!


  3. Thanks for a great description of the Show as I’m not going myself but want to hear all about it.


  4. Thanks for writing up your experience. It really sounds like it was a extremely difficult day but that it was worth going. Sounds like they need to make more of the surroundings next time – though it must be hard to not be dwarfed by the Peak District. Let’s hope the weather improves. It must be so hard for the nurseries & designers to have the weather make things so hard.

    I can recommend a couple of good cafes in the Peak District for when you do come up here and have a walk. Do visit Stanage Edge – it’s quite beautiful and is a mix of white & dark Peak. In July the fragrance from the heather is sublime.


    • I felt so sorry for all the people who had worked so hard and yet were getting very little publicity from the press day. I hope the forecast cheers up. Couldn’t help feeling both the rain and the scale difficulties were sort of predictable! Also the show ground is at the bottom of a bowl, and must surely be one of the worst places for waterlogging in the grounds. Let’s hope there are some solutions to the teething problems.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. great blog Harriet, I used to go to school in Darley Dale a few miles down the road. I nearly thought of going – thanks to you I don’t have to!


  6. Congrats on getting some good shots in poor light! The Peak District is just about my favourite place in this country. Hathersage is well worth a visit too when you go back. I was regretting not being able to go to Chatsworth and I will definitely give it a go next year, but the early June slot will always mean potentially dodgy weather & waterproofs!


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