Cramped as I am by the restricted movements my spasm-splinted spine will currently allow, one recollection of Hampton Court Flower Show has come into sharper focus than the rest as I rather awkwardly sit down to write. We (that is hubby and me) visited HCFS last Friday, when a cool morning blistered into a sizzling sunny day, and throughout our time there I was continually struck (not literally, I’m glad to say!) by the extraordinary people who, despite the heat and dust, manhandled wheelchairs around the exhibits battling the crowds and the conditions so that their disabled charges could get around the stands and displays. We even saw what appeared to be a hospital trolley complete with drips attached to a clearly very ill person lying prone and still and with his face covered against the sun. He was accompanied by several people, all quite jolly and enjoying the day. Quite humbling.
Our day began with the carefree sense of embarking on a pleasant excursion. The train from Waterloo to Hampton Court gradually filled as the skyline emptied. By Earlsfield, the buildings we were speeding past were low enough to enable me to see for miles across rooftops and trees, while cheery parties of people – predominantly women in flowery dresses, tops and skirts – got on the train and chattered excitedly about the different brands of bubbly they’d bought for a picnic at the show, or how cool it had been in Nottingham as they’d waited for their early morning train to London. A lady and her husband, both of somewhat advanced years, sat opposite us and, as she told us excitedly that the visit to the show was a birthday treat, she hunched her shoulders and glanced at her husband with the smile of a delighted girl. The day was full of moments such as these – delightful little connections between strangers who briefly became friends.
On the whole I’m very not comfortable in crowds, but the atmosphere was so good-natured that, in spite of the jostling and obscured views, I was able to just get on with it, and shuffle to squint between shoulders and past hats with the best of them. However, at one point, when I turned back to see where my husband was, it was clear he hadn’t arrived at any such accommodation of the situation. Head back, chin poked forwards, he was doing a passable imitation of a cross-looking Easter Island head – complete with shades! It didn’t last though – succumbing to the tempting smell of roasting pork (mingled rather bizarrely with the coconut scent of suntan cream), we headed to the hog roast and had a spot of lunch. Sorted!
So what were we all there for? Oh yes – flowers. And plants and all things pertaining to gardens and gardening. Fortified by food, we set off to cruise the plant stalls (the gardens could wait!), our trusty trolley-box at the ready. Surely the sound of RHS flower shows is the rumble of the ubiquitous folding wheeled box with extendable handle, being trundled along ridged metal walkways, brimming with plants! True to form, we bought loads more plants than we should have, including a gorgeous rich crimson Achillea studded with gold dots like an Elizabethan courtier’s doublet, and (well, I had to!) a carnation with a striking scent of cloves. We bought this from a very helpful collector of carnations in the Plant Heritage Marquee, who told us the Bookham Clove was no longer available. Our carnation is a very respectable stand-in called the Duchess of Roxburghe, don’t y’know. And she smells lovely!
Partway through the day the weather was such that I had to deploy my brolly and scarf. The sun was so scorching I needed more shade than my hat provided and, not entirely trusting the Factor 50 suncream, I also covered up with a silk scarf. Stalls selling parasols were cleaning up, and ice-cream vendors were doing a roaring trade. It was hot!
When it came to the gardens, I was struck by how different they were from the representation on the TV coverage of the Show – inevitable, I guess. Sadly, reality can come off a poor second. For instance, one garden was designed to invoke a child’s eye view of being on a forest floor, but because the gardens are all roped off, none of the adult viewers were able to experience this – although I did see a child rather self-consciously picking her way into the centre of the garden to see for herself (yes – she was allowed, in fact, I think she was chivvied into it!).
Whites, blues and mauves seemed to dominate much of the planting in the gardens – with the odd radical diversion into bright oranges and reds.
In a darkly gothic garden called ‘Ashes to Ashes’ a mound of charcoal and black grass sprouted gravestones and blood red blooms, and was topped by charred and twisted tree trunks. I heard a rather irritable-sounding lady loudly exclaim:
So, isn’t there anything to explain to us what all this is about?
just as I twigged that it concerned Ash dieback.
The gravestones were inscribed ‘RIP Chalara Fraxinea’ which – now I’ve looked it up – strikes me as odd, as the ‘chalara’ part refers to the fungus which is causing the dieback of the ‘fraxinus’ (ash tree). Not only that, but Chalara Fraxinea is the name of only one stage of the disease… Oh well. A sort of lava flow led off the mound into a thin trickle of sprouting shoots which widened as it curled round towards another mound, this time green with grass and tender but flourishing ash trees. Anyway – isn’t ‘fraxinus’ a great word?! (‘Spear’, apparently).
Velvety grey-blues and misty silvers blended beautifully in my favourite garden. I wasn’t particularly taken by the winch-operated screen of rusted iron rods which could be opened to reveal the vista beyond a seated area at the top of the plot, but I liked the stairway which led up to it. This was made of massive wooden discs turned from joined railway sleepers. I particularly liked the soft hazy effect of the faded sea-washed mauves, blues and greys of the plants burgeoning either side of the sleeper steps. But most magical and memorable of all was the effect of several small fleeting dragonflies darting about this garden like tiny silver-blue needles stitching and weaving an invisible web. They were breathtaking.
Occasionally, we’d see some very exotic butterflies fluttering by, or alighting on a prize cabbage, and we decided they must have escaped from the butterfly dome, set up by the RHS and the Eden Project. I’d love to have gone in to see all of the different types of butterflies flitting about freely inside the dome, but the queue! No way were we going to stand for hours in the sweltering heat. Instead, we gawped in at them from a clear panel in the dome – still amazing.
By late afternoon, we had a respectable haul of plants in our trolley-box and heads full of ideas we’re unlikely to implement, and were ready to head home. Rather than take the boat to the station which is a lovely little trip, we trundled past the Palace and over the Lutyens-designed bridge to Hampton Court station. We got a very clear idea of how dreadful the proposed development on the site of the ‘Jolly Boatman’ would look. In fact, I was quite surprised that there was no evidence of the campaign in evidence.Amazed to find seats available on the train we sat, comfortably exhausted, to enjoy the return journey. The train guard welcomed us all on the intercom and listed the stations we’d be stopping at on the half-hour journey back to Waterloo, cheerily reminding us not to leave ‘that expensive rhododenron’ behind. After a few minutes, the pleasantly dozy atmosphere of the train was interrupted by the silky tone of a woman’s voice announcing the availability of a buffet service, and asking us to clear the gangway. We were all beginning to exchange puzzled (and, in my case at least, slightly hopeful) looks through our various fronds of foliage when the guard interrupted her and apologised for pressing the wrong message button. Warming to his theme, said:
I mean, it could have been ‘Mind the gap’ or ‘Next stop Gatport Airwick’… Oh, you know what I mean!
and cut off mid-chuckle. He appeared in our carriage a few minutes later as we stopped at the first station, an affable, portly chap answering questions patiently and seeing people on and off the train.
When we got off at Waterloo, I was delighted to see him on the platform. He shook my hand and gave me a beaming smile – which more than made up for the fact he wasn’t wearing a cap with a carnation in it!