A giant tea party, synchronised swimming and a perfumery- the Royal Horticultural Society’s Chelsea Flower Show has once again proved that it is not just about pot plants and garden gnomes.
In fact, did you know that as colour sculptures are strictly forbidden at the show, the good old gnome should officially never have set a ceramic foot through its doors. However, it is said that one of Chelsea’s frequent exhibitors, Jekka McVicar, used to smuggle a gnome into her exhibits!
Arguably one of the most stunning and magnificent displays at 2015’s show was the Nong Nooch Tropical Botanical Garden of Thailand, complete with a floral elephant, made out of hundreds of tiny tropical orchids. An absolute show stopper.
Smaller, local nurseries and garden enthusiasts kept up the with big boys too, flying the flag for smaller establishments. My lovely local nursery Dibley’s of Ruthin pulled out all the stops and showed the rest of the world some of the colours and visual delights the Clwydian Range and Dee Valley Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty has to offer.
For me, another sight to behold is the venue. Not the’Great Pavilion’, which, incidentally, was named the world’s largest tent (3½ acres) by the Guinness Book of Records when the ‘Great Marquee’ was first erected in 1951, but the home of the Chelsea Pensioners for over 300 years; the historic Royal Hospital Chelsea. And a hospital is exactly what it is- a place which provides ‘hospitality’ for war veterans.
The Chelsea Flower Show has been held here every year since 1913, bar for a few years due to the two world wars. The RHS’s ‘Great Spring Show’ was originally held in the organisation’s garden in Kensington in 1862 and between 1888 and 1911 in the nearby Temple Gardens. The ‘Great Spring Show’ was cancelled in 1912 in order to hold the ‘Royal International Horticultural Exhibition’ at the Royal Hospital, and it was the success of this which brought the Great Spring Show, or the Chelsea Flower Show as we now know it, to the Royal Hospital Chelsea in 1913. The rest, as they say, is history.
The Royal Hospital was established by Charles II in 1682 for those who had fought for their country but “who were broken by age or war”. It was designed by Sir Christopher Wren, famous for rebuilding 52 churches in London following the Great Fire of London in 1666, including St Paul’s Cathedral and also for the Royal Naval College, Greenwich, Kensington Palace, Hampton Court Palace and many other projects.
This is the second time Sir Christopher Wren has popped up in conversation for me this week as, not only was he an architect, but also an acclaimed scientist, mathematician, physicist and astronomer and earlier this week I attended a #MuseumsAtNight stargazing event at Cadw’s Beaumaris Castle.
Christopher Wren was a founder of the Royal Society (of London for Improving Natural Knowledge), and president between 1680 and 1682. As part of the event at the castle, we had a talk on the lesser known but fascinating history of the Herschel family, pioneering astronomers including Sir William Herschel, who discovered Uranus, his sister and his son. The Herschel family are the only family with three craters on the moon named after them- after William, Caroline and John, respectively.
Alongside discovering the only planet discovered in historic times, William also discovered that Newton’s law of gravity extended outside of our galaxy, when he observed how stars and objects moved around each other, and also discovered infared radiation. After his father died, Sir John moved to south Africa, built a massive, 21 foot telescope and chartered the sky seen from the southern hemisphere, adding thousands to the record.
The best thing about the event, however, was the portable planetarium and presentation given by Dark Sky Wales, especially as it was rather cloudy so real star spotting was made a little more challenging! Since the event, we have kept our eyes to the skies at night and, with the use of a handy app, been planet and constellation spotting when we’re out in the open at night (ok, ok, when we’re walking back from the pub…).
I love the history behind the different names different cultures call the constellations. The Plough, which makes up part of The Bear, is called the Big Dipper in America and in Dutch it is known as the saucepan, similarly in Welsh- ‘y Sospan’ and in northern England ‘the butcher’s cleaver’. In Indonesia, they are known as the ‘canoe stars’ and an Arabic legend names them the ‘coffin stars’, with the offset stars seen as the mourners following. Native American a legend behind the group of stars explains the leaves turning red in autumn- the line of stars representing hunters chasing a wounded bear. The bear’s blood falls on the leaves, making them turn red, as the grouping is low in the sky during that time of year.
This easily recognisable group of stars help you guide your way around the sky at night as they can be used to locate other features. For example, if you draw a line ‘upwards’ through the bottom right and top right stars (if you look as it like a saucepan) and keep going, you will find the Northern Star. The Northern Star lies almost exactly ‘above’ the northern axis of the Earth, and so it doesn’t appear to move as we, and the Plough, rotate around it on an axis and therefore was and still is so important for navigational aids.
To come full circle, I must also make a note about Airbus’ display at RHS Chelsea, also. Although completely mind-boggling, they are currently in the middle of a huge experiment growing seeds which have been cultivated in space! They hope that this will lead them to be able to grow food on board space-craft in the future. Wow.
So from perennials to pensioners and palaces to planetariums, this week has been a week of seeing spectacular things on a grand scale. From the tiny orchids which made up the huge displays at the Chelsea Flower Show, to the bricks and mortar which created a stately home for those who fought for their country, up to the planets and stars which make us feel so small and insignificant.
But remember that nothing is insignificant. When you see a splash of colour in a garden- look closely at the tiny detail which has evolved over so many thousands of years. When you’re out at night, please remember to look up to the stars.
Most importantly, next time you see any pensioner, not just one from Chelsea of course, smile and say hello. Seeing things on a grand scale can often make you forget that it’s the little things that count. And they really do. Try it and you’ll feel what I mean.