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The Chelsea Flower Show lowdown, plus other great garden shows

  • 22 Feb 2013
Visitors at The Royal Horticultural Society Chelsea Flower Show, Chelsea, London, London, England.  Additional Credit: Troika

The famous Chelsea Flower Show will celebrate its one hundredth birthday this year. Find out about Chelsea and other fabulous shows, and immerse yourself in floral culture - from themed afternoon teas to a dedicated exhibition.

Read on for the lowdown on the 2013 Chelsea Flower Show as well as other key events for flower lovers, plus great British gardens from the quintessential to the quirky – including gardens with ghosts and naked horticulturalists!

Chelsea – the hot ticket (21-25 May)

Established in 1913, on the grounds of the Chelsea Royal Hospital in London, the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, as it’s officially known, has become one of the most celebrated annual events in the world. Since its beginning, the show has grown from 244 exhibitors to over 500 and today the show attracts 161,000 visitors.

Over almost a century, the Chelsea Flower Show has seen radical changes in horticultural fashion, ranging in style from Japanese dwarf trees to an 80ft high pyramid garden! At the heart of Chelsea is the exhibition of plants staged in the Great Pavilion by nurserymen and women, professionals and amateurs.

Today, Chelsea is still viewed as the most important event in the horticultural, not to mention social calendar; a fashionable event, the hats and frocks are as much admired and elaborate as the flowers. And in addition to wandering around taking in flamboyant, innovative and fragrant displays, visitors usually indulge in the very British delights of scones and tea, Pimms and lemonade.

Five fascinating facts about Chelsea you may not have known…

  1. In 2012 visitors to the show drank 1,068 bottles of champagne and 15,887 cups of tea, and ate 8,734 sandwiches.
  2. Over the past 100 years there have been over 250 exhibitors from other countries. Holland has sent the highest number of exhibitors.
  3. Gnomes and other brightly coloured mythical creatures are usually banned from the Show, but this year there’s an exception, and ‘celebrity gnomes’ designed by the likes of Dame Maggie Smith and Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes, will be auctioned via Ebay for the RHS Campaign for School Gardening.
  4. Chelsea is the flower show most associated with the Royal family, who attend the opening day every year. The Queen is the patron of the Royal Horticultural Society, and during her reign has attended all but 12 shows.
  5. It takes 800 people 33 days to build the show from bare grass to the finished article.

Unfortunately, the Show is so good that everyone wants to go, and tickets usually sell out extremely quickly. This year, if you can’t get a ticket, there are some other ways to catch the vibe of Chelsea, as well as plenty of other flower shows that are equally beautiful and entertaining.

Chelsea inspired activities

Smell the roses… and the tealeaves
To get into the floral mood, why not take a Chelsea-inspired afternoon tea at the Radisson Edwardian Vanderbilt, close to the Chelsea Flower Show in neighbouring South Kensington? Choose from a selection of rich floral teas or a glass of champagne and indulge in flowery treats such as orange blossom & lavender infused scones served with traditional clotted cream and strawberry jam, dainty finger sandwiches, elderflower crème brulée and rose fruit jellies. Simply sumptuous, and as quintessentially British as the Show itself. Book in advance, www.radissonblu-edwardian.com/afternoontea.

Floral history
If you’re in town before Chelsea, brush up on your floral history at the Floriculture: Flowers, Love and Money exhibition at the Garden Museum in London (14 Feb – 28 April 2013). The first exhibition to tell the story of the cut flower trade from the 17th century until today will appeal even to those whose knowledge of blooms is restricted to ordering a bouquet online for birthdays and Valentines. Both a celebration of the flower’s role in our everyday lives and an exploration of the debates surrounding Fair Trade in flowers, the exhibition will open your mind as well as your eyes and nose to the significant role of flowers in our lives. The Garden Museum has been described as ‘one of London’s best small museums’ and its pretty outdoor café offers a vegetarian menu with treats from the veg patch. The Garden Museum, Covent Garden, www.gardenmuseum.org.uk

Lasting flowers
Not all flowers have to die… in the beautiful ‘Potteries’ area of England, Stoke-on-Trent, officially known as the World Capital of Ceramics (and home to Wedgewood and Emma Bridgewater among others), a unique garden is being created to mark the Chelsea Flower Show’s 100th birthday. Thousands of brilliant white flowers are being handmade by young people across the city, and will be displayed during the Show to raise money for charity. The area is well worth a visit, offering the greenest city in the UK and one of the country’s most beautiful horticultural attractions, Trentham Gardens, and you can even see the beautiful ceramic flowers being crafted year-round at the Gladstone Pottery Museum. See www.visitstoke.co.uk for details. Stoke-on-Trent is less than 2 hours away from London by train, with regular services running between the two.

More flower shows

It’s not all about the Chelsea Flower Show though, there are lots of other flower shows in Britain throughout the year, which are easier to get tickets for and just as fun. In fact, flower shows such as Hampton Court, can be better suited to families, as there’s a lot more space to run about and enjoy the sunshine.

The Chelsea Fringe, May

The first Chelsea fringe took place in London last year and is back in 2013 after a successful debut. It’s independent of the RHS Chelsea Flower Show but acts with its support. Unlike that event, it runs for three weeks, so there are plenty of opportunities to get involved. There were over 100 events last year, which included everything from grassroots community garden projects to avant-garde art installations across various locations in London. Around 45000 people attended, and the event was run by a team of 50 volunteers. The biggest single installation in 2012 was ‘Floating Forest’, an abstract installation involving 600 sawn logs floating in the canal at Portobello Dock, in West London – what will 2013 have in store? There’s only one way to find out. And the best bit? Most events and projects are free. www.chelseafringe.com

Winchester Flower Festival, June

Winchester Cathedral in Hampshire is one of England’s most spectacular religious buildings, and well worth a visit as it’s just an hour away from London by train and a world away from the capital’s hustle and bustle. Make a trip over between 12-16 June and you’ll be able to witness the longest nave of any English cathedral being transformed into a ‘Symphony of Flowers’ for the city’s first flower festival. The event will be accompanied by music, and will transform the historic building for four days, purely for the joy of the thousands of visitors and pilgrims who head over to seek inspiration there each year. Winchester itself is a charming place to relax and potter about in independent shops, sample top produce at the largest farmers’ market in the UK (first Sunday of the month) and sample the region’s speciality – watercress – in various surprising and delicious guises (watercress hot dog anyone?!) www.visitwinchester.co.uk

Blenheim Palace, June

Another new flower show on the calendar is happening from 21-23 June at the magnificent Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire. The birthplace of Winston Churchill and one of Britain’s most beautiful historic properties, Blenheim is worth a visit at any time of the year and fits nicely with a trip to Oxford, or the Cotswolds region of England. The brand new flower show will feature over 150 floral and gardens exhibitors, a Grand Floral Marquee with RHS judges, ten garden landscapes, and lots more including food and refreshments and family activities.

Adult tickets will be £12 on the day, and £10 in advance; children £6.30/£5. Trains and coaches run from London to Oxford regularly, and it takes about two hours, from there you can take a bus directly to the palace. www.blenheimpalace.com/tickets

RHS Hampton Court and Tatton Park Flower Shows, July

The Royal Horticultural Society, which organises Chelsea, is also behind the Hampton Court Flower Show (9-14 July) and the Tatton Park Flower Show (24-28 July). The Hampton Court event is the world’s largest annual flower show, and is set against the backdrop of the magnificent Hampton Court Palace. One of London’s most beautiful and historic attractions, the Palace is well worth a visit in itself, for its magical maze and intriguing tales of monarchs past, particularly Henry VIII. www.rhs.org.uk, www.hrp.org.uk (Advance non-member tickets to the flower show range from £19 to £29.50, under 16s free).

Tatton Park is located in the North of England, in Cheshire (a region well known for its tasty mature cheddar cheese), and every summer hosts what is now known as ‘the North’s greatest garden party’. A family-friendly event, it features up and coming garden designers and last year was the showground for the RHS National Young Designer of the Year award. This year visitors can look forward to exploring gardens inspired by the solar system. Tatton Park is a great family day out at any time of year, featuring a Tudor Old Hall, 50 acres of landscaped gardens, 1,000 acres of deer park and an adventure playground. It’s less than 3 hours from London by train (to Knutsford) and only 45 minutes from Manchester. www.rhs.org.uk, www.tattonpark.org.uk (Advance non-member tickets £23.50, under 16s free).

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