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 ……………

Those eyes said it all .. and it wasn’t thank you!

Thanks to the spell casting prowess of Cindy (see, I married a witch). The field that was adjacent to our garden was now part of the garden of No3 Forsham Cottages. We paid way over the odds for what on paper was agricultural land. But we were not buying agricultural land we were buying garden and DTS (Despite The Spell) our farming neighbour did not actually want to sell land, so a classic case of a seller’s market.

Like a couple of seventeenth century homesteaders we started to clear OUR land of its Logan and Blackberries. This we did before the ink was even on the deeds, let alone dry. We were excitedly anxious to claim our patch and had a notion that the more we stripped out the evidence of cultivation, it lessened the likelihood of bloke next door changing his mind.

There was a lot of posts, a lot of wire, countless fencing staples, and multiple hay stack size mounds of sadistic, bramble briar’s in three acres. Usefully we found a lot of bagging hooks (local term for a sickle) and various pruning tools in the pickers shed which had come as part of the deal. Other than that we had very little in the way of tools and absolutely nothing that could be deemed agricultural machinery. As the plot was ‘land locked’ with the only access being via a six foot wide alley between our house and garage, we were a bit snookered as far as getting any mechanised help. And as we were in yet another one of our ‘dosh free times’ buying or hiring was not an option.

Our tractor and trailer was an old tarpaulin with ropes tied to the corners, on which we stacked the ‘fire fodder’ and manually towed it to the bonfire. So that Cindy could carry on ‘towing’ when I was at work, I made her a ‘lady size’ towing sheet…. those eyes said it all .. and it wasn’t thank you!

Having to construct a new boundary fence, as part of the deal, we recycle the posts, wire and staples that were serviceable. Cindy was the post holder, I hammered in the posts whilst standing on a kitchen chair and swinging a nine pound sledge hammer. When in full swing, and beyond the point of a controlled stop, I just had time to say … “the heads coming“……… before the head parted company with the shaft and hit Cindy in the stomach. I know cavemen are reputed to have clubbed the lady of their choice and drag her back to the lair. But in my case a nine pound sledge hammer head in the belly did nothing to impress!

Tracey (daughter) or as we called her ‘the Kidlet’ was very young at this time, and feral. Her wardrobe consisted of red wellington boots and a miniature tractor suit (overalls) or when she went casual, just red wellies and her pants! The Kidlet spent hours doing nothing, I say “nothing” because whenever you asked what she was up to it was always ‘nothing’, or in her parlance “nutink!” One day whilst doing ‘nutink’ she managed to find some white stuff in an old sack which had been long buried in the tangled grass of the headland, we found her slightly foaming white at the mouth, with a white chalk face pack which extend down to her hand smeared white chest … and she now had fast going white parents …………. she lived.

A really nice local farmer called Bob, delivered some hay, ‘Bob the farmer’s wife’ emerged from the old transit van (she was nice as well) and asked Cindy if she could meet our little girl. We whistled her up (which worked with the dog well) in time our little darling came around the corner. A bit miffed to be called up, because she had been washing her hair in a puddle, golden blond curls were liberally smeared with an Anita Roddick style blend of wet clay and oak leafs, she looked like a cherub version of the Green Man Green ManSurprisingly, Kidlet did have her tractor suit on, which went someway to lessen the shock, when the feral Pellett kid met the nice Mrs ‘Bob the Farmer’.