Our Early Adventures At The Chelsea Flower Show

Ferdinand was a BIG man, big in body, big in spirit, big in personality and big in heart. I have a wealth of blog fodder when it concerns this man. Ferdinand like some before and some after him strode into our lives with such an aura he made us wiser and hopefully better people.

Cindy and I first met the big man at the Chelsea Flower Show in about 1990. It was our second year exhibiting at Chelsea. The first year (a story still to tell) we had the bliss of ignorance to shield us from the mayhem that is the Chelsea Flower show build-up, show days and breakdown. We, two country mice, had no idea what was expected of us and we had no idea what we expected of the most famous flower show in the world.

AS second year exhibitors we could no longer claim Chelsea virgins’ status, so we had nowhere to hide and no excuses. We ‘girded our loins’; hatched a plan and started our set up nine days prior to the show’s opening. Whereas the previous year the three days we thought more than adequate proved to be ridiculously inadequate. Turning up as we did on the pre-show Friday we found the organisers had begun to think we were not coming. A lovely lady with a formidable reputation, but seemed to like us, took us to our stand allocation which was on the corner at the top of Main Avenue and Northern Road, opposite the RHS organisers facilities, so right in the “spot light”. To the west and south of our plot were two mega conservatory companies, who were vying for the really top end market. Both had built massive crystal palaces kitted out with marble floors, grand piano, orange trees, cocktail bars, and second floors with balconies. Space was tight, so over the past ten days they exploited the non-appearance of the country mice by using our little corner stand as a dumping ground for their vast piles of detritus. Mavis instructed them that they had half an hour to MOVE their stuff, and twenty minutes later they had, and we had our first Chelsea stand. Our thoughts then were that we were in danger of looking like a Robin Reliant squeezed down the alley betwixt the Rolls Royce sales rooms.

As the major elements of our year two display came together we kept shunting ‘tarting up’ jobs further up the schedule. “We will do that nearer the end”, “fit that when the site is clearer on Sunday”. That would best be done on Sunday “I’ll do the signage on Sunday”.
It was late into Sunday afternoon; we had a surprising amount of ‘tarting’ still to do. As always on any show set-up things betwixt Cindy and I were ‘fraught’. I kept me head down (literally) and was to be found on my hands and knees laying a foot path of Bethersden marble (look it up) leading off the main avenue directing potential customers to our purpose made summerhouse (we made especially … thankyou Colin) which was to be our Chelsea home for the show days.

I became aware of feet, big feet in big white plimsolls. Big feet that if left unmoved would soon be obstructing my footpath laying progress. I glanced up the grey slacks to see a partial eclipse, obscuring the sun was a ‘man mountain’ in pale blue (damp armpits) no tie and clutching a disproportionately small white plastic carrier bag to his ample girth.
We made eye contact, the giant boomed “ello” in an unmistakable German accent and without drawing breath went off into much speaking and gesticulating, the plastic carrier being swung back and forth like a semaphore flag.

“Hello” I said which was my entire repertoire of German (ie none). I shrugged and smiled in the universal body language way that says “You seem like a nice bloke but I have not got a *ucking clue what you’re on about, and on this particular occasion I incorporated an undertone of “go away I am under the cosh to get this done”. Eclipse man seemed to comprehend, offered me his hand, (big hands.. scared me) smiled and then he disappeared back into the main avenue throng which was now a throng of manic stand builders, who need it to be yesterday. Garden designers with an entourage of anxious young things all on the verge of despair, cos Sebastian has been held up by customs and is stuck in Dover with the specimen (suspect) plants they simply MUST have before judging. Plus hundreds of sightseers who had blagged themselves ‘build up passes’, which got them in a day early for a pre-show eyeball. Camera crews, microphones, sound booms, ear phones, celebrity interviewers, celebrity interviewees, and South Africans with high-vis-jackets, crackling walkie talkies and bucket loads of attitude who are shouting ‘gibberish’ at everybody as they tried to establish, who owns the apparently abandoned Volvo, with no windscreen ID, full of wilting plants, that has clouted somebody’s stand, bringing down the fascia and put tyre trenches up a show garden’s manicured turf.

“ELLO” I heard an hour or so later. Severing the crowed our big German was bellowing “Ello” looking at, and bearing down on ME. He went off on one again and made indication he wanted a brochure (the plastic carrier was now full of them). He flicked through the pages glancing at the pictures then at our display for confirmation the picture and the product correlated. He pointed to some pictures and glanced around the stand disappointed and perplexed we did not have a sample of a chicken house or dog kennel (like Gnomes, chicken houses back then were banned at RHS shows). Then suddenly he went, parted the red sea of minions as he strode forth, anxiously looking right and left obviously looking for somebody.
Those were crazy times for us, that decade of Chelseas, very highs and very lows. Like the time we found ourselves locked in the show ground at 10.30 pm, in the dark, in the rain, hungry, caked in mud and facing the prospect of a two hour drive home, but first having to walk a mile around the other way to our car. Our mood lifted no-end knowing we had to leave home before 5am next day to have any chance of getting back at a sensible hour to get in another long day.

Monetary restraints meant we needed to repatriate, plants, turf, shrubs, anything in fact that others had deemed ‘rubbish’ but Cindy could utilise to good effect on our stand (Cindy is brilliant at making silk purses from sows ears …… ie me) On one sortie to the communal skips I found Lord Snowdon crouching around the back, hiding from the cameras. As a pair of skip dwellers we had a chat about “the bloody press”, what I did (I knew what he did), and surveying our stand from the hidey hole, the merits of my dovecote designs. Nice bloke, reckoned his son did a bit of woodwork.

Next instalment ……….. Its show time ……………

A chicken house with two letter boxes…. that’s class

Having finished building my chicken run, I could now stand at the kitchen sink and survey my stockade. I am not admitting to it being ugly or an eyesore as was some people’s unsolicited opinions. I would suggest my run had a certain rustic charm that only the more discerning, or somebody in touch with their weirdo caveman side, (see last blog) could appreciate and applaud.

Only a few days ago a friend referred to me as ‘Stig of the Dump’. In this instance it was because of my ‘ interesting’ dress etiquette and my unfailing ability to clutter any area I work in…. I could make the municipal dump look untidy.

However I willingly admit my Stig prowess, I can’t pass by a skip without having a rummage for the treasures it holds, seeking out those goodies that will ‘come in handy’. As a kid I wanted to be a dustman, I needed to rescue thrown away comics, toys, old bikes and those old prams with spoked wheels for cart building.

My first house was designed ‘from the hip’ (or should that be from the tip) which means I made it up as I went. The project was dictated by the ‘stuff’ I had salvaged, my limited woodworking skills, a minimalist tool box, a blissful lack of bird knowledge and ultimately lack of funds. What I did have was a big head, an ego to match.

A little time ago some bloke was up for the Turner Prize for art with a shed made out of a boat (or something like that) which indicates I was well ahead of my time. I built a chicken house out of a skip.

Stripped out pallets (saved the nails) a couple of old front doors with letter boxes, yale locks, knockers and glass still in place. The roof was water proofed with rubber printing blankets* salvaged from the skip at work. The floors and walls were lined with used litho plates* ( *printers will know what I mean).

This very first ever Forsham chicken house would have gotten me onto to the red carpet at the Stig Oscars. It was big, its was heavy, it was glorious, and I loved it. Everybody who came to visit had the guided tour of my poultry palace. When they came again they had to ‘eye ball’ the updates ……. not many came a third time.

Surprisingly this first effort actually worked, but more by default than design. I had four scruffy cross breed bantams (supplied by Uncle Bob the wood cutter) Those little birds would have used a tea chest with a hole knocked in the side, at Bobs they nested in the wood pile. They now luxuriated in an eight by six foot house with four massive nest boxes.

Access for cleaning was gained by lifting the HEAVY roof, which was constructed from the two front doors and propping it open with the broom handle. Yes, it did collapse, cascading front door glass over me the girls, but I STILL maintain I did that deliberately to lessen the weight …

A weirdo caveman

I have a theory based on no sociological theory whatsoever, other than my slightly distorted perspective on the world, and just about everything. I think, that buried deep in some of us there is this gene that has its origins from way back when a weirdo caveman decide that running about with a spear trying to harpoon dinner was too much hassle. The weirdo thought it made sense to build stockade around a hut, call it ‘Dunhunting’ and breed his dinner in the back garden, which at the time was some pretty radical thinking.

My weirdo gene was running riot, I needed to build my stockade using stout chestnut posts (cut from the forest). Secured with chicken netting (from the farm supplies shop). I wanted my stock tamed, corralled and safe from the wild beasts. (well that’s my theory)

Before we acquired the extra ground at Forsham Cottage we had already established a vegetable garden and chicken run in our existing garden. The location and size of this first chicken compound was dictated by a combination of ignorance and geography. If ignorance is supposed to be bliss, then I was blissful. I had no comprehension of the potential hassles of a permanent chicken run, let alone one plonked twenty foot from the kitchen door. And geographically because the only area in the original garden for a run was behind the garage. The area was shaded by the building and 50ft tall popular trees so never got the sun. Plus the soil was clay and a concrete slab that caped the cesspit was only a spade depth down.

To get the stockade started I went to find Cindy’s Uncle Bob. He was (and still is, ‘just’) a woodcutter, and literally had stacks of posts in his little fencing yard. Uncle Bob is as wide as he is tall, and he is not very tall. His donkey jacket came down to his knees. He has shoulders like a bullock and is as strong as somebody who spent their entire life reducing trees to logs, would be. If Mr Attenborough had every sighted Bob in the woods he would have the sequel to the silver back episode.

(Coincidentally I was once reading an account of the doodlebug raids on London during WWII . It told that a lot of the V2’s fell short of the capital and splattered Kent. The author mentions an incident during the raids when he discovered a woodman (guess who) dragging fallen V2’s out of the woods to get the scrap value of the copper wire they were apparently full of.)

My run was going to be constructed of neatly aligned posts, with wire pulled thigh and buried deep, to keep the fox out. I was going to have functional and secure chicken house. Feisty hens being attended by a vocal cockerel. And produce so many eggs I could sell them over the gate and pay the mortgage.

My neatly aligned posts were not neat and not aligned, tree roots, builders rubble and a cesspit cover hindered that. The tight wire, was baggy because the posts weren’t straight. And digging a trench around the lot to bury the wire was abandoned on the grounds that if I could not dig it, then nor could a fox.