Some of London’s best gardens appear for just five days a year – at the annual RHS Chelsea Flower Show, kicking off this year on Tuesday 19 May. Green-fingered royals and celebs mingle with young-fogey hipsters rediscovering home-grown gardening trends, there’s inspiration and planting plans for your own patch of turf, and champagne and lobster to enjoy alongside the chrysanths and lobelias.
We get down and dirty to bring you the inside scoop on this most colourful, pretty and sweet-smelling of Spring gardening events, with tips on where to stay in London including a fantastic package at St James Hotel & Club (see below) and how to get your hands on tickets (and even both at the same time)…
RHS CHELSEA FLOWER SHOW 2009
When? 19–23 May
Where? The Royal Hospital, Royal Hospital Road, Chelsea, London
Style Hip horticulture
Setting Leafy SW3
Tell me more… It’s as English as an Alice band, and dates back to 1862, but the Chelsea Flower Show has more to do with fashion than tradition. This design-led demonstration of man’s mastery over plantkind sees dozens of organisations competing for recognition – from glossy magazines and banks to charities and regional flower-arranging clubs. It’s a high-visibility event, with cameras trained on seed-obsessed stars, royal regulars, and beloved Brit gardeners. And the 11-acre site is teeming with inspiration, so even those with the pokiest urban patches will find something to stimulate their green matter. As a forum for trends and eco brainwaves, and a super-social scene, Chelsea has become the horticultural height of young-fogey hip.
‘Taking part in Chelsea is both wildly exciting and infuriating. For me it is like a drug: it gets in your blood’ – Diarmuid Gavin, garden designer
Event highlights Whether you come for the green-welly glamour or the cutting-edge plant varieties, the winning gardens are genuinely gorgeous. They’re our top reason for attending – though champagne and lobster in the Ranelagh Restaurant come a close second. Having said that, there’s nothing conspicuously flash about this event: despite its popularity among royals, America’s A-list and Europe’s aristos, Chelsea has a very broad appeal – why not take your parents?
IN THE KNOW
Head count More than 150,000 people attend the event every year.
Packing tips Take a waterproof with you, since there’s often a bit of rain. We also recommend whipping out one of those see-through plastic headscarves – it’s up to you whether you work it HRH-style or with postmodern chutzpah.
Best view The Rock Bank Restaurant (0845 260 7000) has the best views. Book early, and ask for a table overlooking the gardens; you can have breakfast, lunch or dinner there, so if your chosen time is unavailable, switch meals instead.
Crowd control A number of the gardens are designed to be tranquil retreats, but that can take a little imagination at peak times. If the crowds get too much, nip out and take in a view of the Thames along Chelsea Embankment, or have a walk through nearby Battersea Park just across the river.
Bar chat Bonsai trees, those potted horticultural miniatures, were first unveiled to the Western world at the 1913 Chelsea Flower Show – some 70 years before they became a national craze (albeit one as short-lived as the Sinclair C5).
Tickets From £43 for a full day, with lower rates (from £18.50) if you attend later in the afternoon or the evening. Members of the Royal Horticultural Society get reduced-rate tickets and other privileges. Book on 0870 906 3781 or click here for ticket sales; you can also book and find out more at www.rhs.org.uk/chelsea. Tickets for this event always sell out, so book early.
TOP TIP If you’ve left it too late and missed out on tickets, shop wise and pick a hotel-and-tickets package: the ‘Blooming Marvellous’ package at stylish stay St James’s Hotel & Club starts from £435 a room a night for a balcony room and includes a pair of all-day tickets for the Chelsea Flower Show on Friday 22 May, sumptuous accommodation and English Breakfast for two. To book this package, ring the Smith24 team (0845 034 0700).
DOs & DON’Ts
– Do get there early. The doors of the Royal Chelsea Hospital open at 8am, and it’s much lovelier to enjoy the show before it gets packed.
– Don’t take an umbrella – especially not of the gargantuan golfing variety. On a rainy day, among throngs of determined garden-hoppers, the last thing you need is something that’ll either poke an eye out or ruin your view. Wear a hat!
– Do keep your camera/phone handy, for taking discreet pap portraits of the Queen/Joanna Lumley/Alan Titchmarsh.
– Don’t hang about for the ‘sell-off’, when exhibitors hawk their plants and products at the end of the show, unless there’s something you absolutely have to have and can’t get elsewhere: it’s almost always too busy to be any fun.
NEED TO KNOW
Getting there Sloane Square Tube station is about 10 minutes’ walk from the show, and Victoria is the nearest mainline station. The show is in central London, and parking nearby can be very tricky.
Children Under fives are not admitted, for safety reasons. The crowds can make wrangling older children feel like an uphill struggle; if your kids are restless (but still garden-hungry), take them to Kew Gardens, 25 minutes away on the District Line, instead. Alternatively, Battersea Park Children’s Zoo is very close, at the par’s Chelsea Gate on Queenstown Road.
Parking There’s limited parking at Battersea Park, which is about 20 minutes’ walk away. The charges vary, starting at £12.50 or £20, depending on the time of day, and the area is outside the Congestion Charge zone (although the event venue itself is not).
Food & drink Catering is a broad church here, with everything from jacket potatoes to lobster available at various restaurants, cafés and food courts. The Rock Bank Restaurant is open 8am–8pm (5.30pm on Saturday), so you can go for a full three-course lunch or early dinner. The Loch Fyne Seafood and Champagne Restaurant is our favourite, being the buzziest of the lot. There are also champagne and Pimm’s bars as well as hot food stalls scattered across the site. Ring 0845 260 7000 to make reservations.
Sleep There are some gorgeous London hotels in this neck of the woods, including Blakes (the original boutique hotel), The Pelham and Number Sixteen in South Kensington; the Baglioni Hotel on High Street Kensington; and San Domenico House in Chelsea.
But, if you’re canny, you’ll pick St James’s Hotel & Club (pictured), which not only has some of the best views in London but which is currently offering a ‘Blooming Marvellous’ deal: all guests booking an overnight stay in either a terrace or balcony room on Thursday 21 May or Friday 22 May will also get a pair of free all-day tickets to the Show. Ring 0845 034 0700 to book.
Find more events in Smith 52: The Game Plan