25 July 2012

My First RHS Flower Show

At the weekend my friend Sally initiated me into the mysteries of an RHS Flower Show.

Over the years I’ve hesitated to go to the Tatton Show, which is not far from where I live, because I thought it would be like Chelsea, which judging by the BBC coverage seems a place crammed with people carrying tall plants in flimsy bags who would no doubt get in my way and I’m sure I’d get annoyed and hot and wouldn’t be able to get near the displays because there’d be packs of Sarah Ravens with their unbrushed hair in the way, and when I’d say ‘excuse me’ they’d look at me disdainfully because they’d know just by looking that I couldn’t name any of the plants ... I have indeed worked up some anxiety around attending a grand flower show.

In the end it wasn’t like that at all and Sally and I had a great time, lubricated by coffee and ice creams.

Tatton is in a big field which leaves plenty of room for ambling maddeningly past crowd phobic people. It is interesting to contrast it with Latitude Music Festival, which was also a first for me this year. Both involve getting your entertainment from wandering round a field and popping into marquees with the hope you will be wowed by what you find. There were no teenagers at Tatton, and no drunkenness, although Sally told me a cautionary tale of her sister who at a similar flower show indulged too heavily in free samples of wine. Another major difference was in the level of ambient noise. Tatton was eerily quiet compared to the constant bass thud of Latitude. You may be wondering why compare a music festival to a sedate flower show? Well, it seems to me, as an inveterate people watcher, that here are two examples of the middle class at play. It’s just that the grandparents and mothers (hello) of the Latitude kids got to reinforce their tribal identity by tramping round flower shows, rather than getting rained on at a Bon Iver concert (my son is so middle class the Latitude performance he raved about most was the ‘paper theatre’).

This lady, photographed at Tatton, seems to have confused ‘flower show’ for ‘festival’.

These legs also intrigued me. Look at the brown leather shoes teamed with jeans.

This is the ‘smart casual’ uniform of the rich man, in this case probably the rich man of the Cheshire set (I can’t account for the women). These two, admittedly attractive, men and their silver fox companion were manning a stand called ‘I Want Trees’.

If a sudden urge for mature trees grips you all you have to do is call some cool dudes (don’t you just know they drive an open top Lexus?) and they will fulfil your whim, at a price of course. You’d think they’d soften this blatant pandering to avarice with a company name that suggested gardening expertise or at least a love of nature, but no, it seems in this case there is no need to hide the base line materialism. It indicates the type of people they are dealing with: ‘I want it now, I get it now.’ I’m still a little shocked.

Generally speaking Tatton came across as a festival of consumerism, if not at the level of the above example. As you entered (at an eye watering ticket price of £28) the first half of the site was taken up with stands selling garden related knick knacks. To which I confess I wasn’t immune. I came away with a rug. Yes, I went to a flower show and left with something for the kitchen. Maybe those nightmare Sarah Ravens were right to be disdainful of me.

In previous posts I’ve confessed my ambivalence towards garden designers. Tatton didn’t manage to change my mind. Both Sally and I felt the show gardens were not as imaginative or theatrical as we had hoped. It appears as though they were all created with the same formula. This year’s fashion is evidently naturalistic planting schemes, which means wispy grasses and achillea, which are then squeezed round a ‘feature’.

And even I would hang my head in shame if I juxtaposed a mauve flower against a yellow flower in a show garden. Surely that trick is ‘term one’ of a design course?

To be fair the sets were entertaining enough. You got the same thrill as when walking round Ikea and imaging yourself sitting in that tiny living room, or in this case that weedless garden, but I wonder if the designers were constrained by the need to demonstrate client friendly planting schemes instead of being free to experiment. Money rears its head again.

Eventually we came across the real show. At the back of the site a huge marquee contained displays by specialist nurseries. Entering into the dank darkness you came into an exotic world scented by extravagant lilies, and bejewelled with perfectly formed flowers.

Giant bonsai trees as solid as elephants spoke elegantly of the patience it had taken to shape them. Heucheras of all hues glowed seductively and little ladybird poppies made us go ‘Aww’.

It was good to see genuine horticultural skill. If there was any justice it would be the nursery men and women who got to pose in their shades and rich man shoes.

I'm very pleased I went. It wasn't as intimidating as I imagined, the plants were amazing, and the company was lovely.  Thank you Sally.

[My views on Tatton in 2013 where another version of the cool dude was spotted are posted on 27 July 2013]