Chelsea Flower Show – a view from the past

– Posted in: Garden Adventures

"Now this could have been the 1920s!"

“Name’s Fossington-Williams, Sir. John Fossington-Williams. I’m dead, died in 1957, but in my time I was a great lover of the Chelsea Flower Show, so every now and again my ghost goes back to have a look, see what’s changed, what hasn’t changed etc. Here’s what I’ve got to say about the show this year.”

“Chelsea got going early 20th century, but really hit its stride after The Great War, in the 1920s, its hey day really. Chaps like me, gentlemen, would go up on the train, sometimes with our head gardeners traveling in third class too, they’d follow one along, at a respectable distance, and carry the nursery catalogues one picked up, and in my case, he would have a satchel with a big ledger in it with all the plants we had bought over the years, so we wouldn’t order anything twice over. Ordering plants from nurseries was what Chelsea was all about in those days. One saw a fine stand of plants, looked at the catalogue, spoke to the fellow on the stand, made one’s selection, one’s accountant paid the invoice in due course, and come the autumn, the plants would arrive, usually at the nearest railway station.”

"Chrysanths grown to perfection. Hardly cultivated by amateurs these days."

“All that seems to have changed now. The marquee is half empty, shadow of its former self. Some stands haven’t changed a bit though: delphiniums and lupins all standing to attention, like the Guards on parade, but just far fewer of them. Rather impressive still having daffodils out, modern refrigeration I suppose. Mind you, they all look like they are made of that new-fangled plastic stuff, not the delicate flowers of my day. Seems the Chelsea show now is all about the gardens, which in the 1920s were just a sideshow, and to be honest were until the 1980s.”

"Fuchsias and Pelargoniums. Great British flowers, crossed the class divide. Glad they're still there, this could have been any time in the 20th century too.”

“Some things never change though. Rather glad to see the whole place has to shut at 3pm on the Monday, all the journalists thrown out, and the musical hall and film actresses and other riff-raff who somehow get in on the Monday morning have to go, and the royal family have it all to themselves, Royal Horticultural Society all bowing and curtseying. Wouldn’t have been much curtseying in my day, as it would have been nearly all chaps of course. Funny to see the judges going round, just as it always was, but no-one seems to wear a bowler hat any more, not many old school ties either, and quite a scattering of the ladies. Things have changed.”

"Now, in my day, this is what a lot of the gardens looked like. Clearly gone out of fashion now, but funny thing, you could plant this out, as its, and it wouldn't need much attention and would still lookd good ten years later."

“In my day, there were a few gardens around the outside, mostly nurserymen who made a few gardens for respectable members of society every winter, and they would build the most fantastic rock gardens or if they didn’t it would be rhododendrons and azaleas, classic Surrey stockbroker belt plants. Not any more. Seem to be gardens everywhere, in fact they seem to have rather taken over, people crammed a dozen deep trying to see them. Funny thing is, most of these gardens look the same, like all the designers got together at someone’s club, had a few gins and decided what this year’s theme was, but apparently they don’t, so its funny how they all end up looking the same.”

'Best in Show'. "Congratulations old chap. But I can't help thinking that you people in the 21st century are seeking comfort in the past quite honestly."

"Who's this fellow in the pink jumper? In my day no self-respecting gent would have dressed like this, and certainly would not have been allowed in. Now here he is, smirking away as he's just been interviewed for some Balkan television station.

“Best in show – now we didn’t have that in my day, the idea was a bit low quite honestly, but anyway, chap who won it, looked like he came from the Colonies, well it could have been the 1920s, looked a bit like one of Gertrude Jekyll’s topiary and perennial jobs, rather splendid, but it hardly looked liked things had moved on. Very dense planting, rather clever, but it would fight for space if you planted it all out like that. Then one garden was full of wildflowers, that William Robinson fellow with his half-baked book ‘The Wild Garden’ would have liked it. A few gardens looked like they had been designed by lunatics, all bits of odd material half hiding the plants, and what might have been bits of half-demolished buildings.  One even had a car covered in plants. What is the Royal Horticultural Society coming to?”

“My general pleasure at the gardens was brusquely interrupted however, by the sight of an enormous tower. Forty foot of scaffolding, with pots of bamboo on it. Supposed to be a garden! Hah! Designed by some Irish fellow named Gavin apparently. Now in my day, all the Irish ever grew were potatoes, perhaps this fellow should have stuck to them. Imagine the lunacy of the RHS giving this madman the space. Had to head for the bar for a stiff drink after that. Then off haunt my old club, had enough of modernity thank you.”

"Diarmuid Gavin's folly. The red things are Chelsea Pensioners, would you believe! Soldiers who have risked life for King and Country who are now being humiliated for some cheap publicity, Some things never change. Pah! I need a stiff whisky and soda after all this!"

You won’t have to listen to any opinions by upper-class ghosts on

And if you want more very English social satire why not read the world’s only soap opera for gardeners. Its available on amazon kindle.





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Noel Kingsbury

Noel Kingsbury

Noel Kingsbury is a gardener and writer based in the west of England. Author of over 20 books, including four collaborations with Dutch designer Piet Oudolf, he is passionate about wild-style planting and bringing nature into the garden.

Noel Kingsbury

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