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.
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.
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.
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…).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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 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!
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.