Tag Archives: Chelsea Flower Show

On Chelsea Hospital and Turning Strangers into Friends….98/100

davA trait I have inherited from my father is the ability, no,  the compulsion to talk to strangers. I know my children hate it, my friends cringe, but I can’t help myself. Nor do I have any desire to curb this habit as it almost always turns out well, sometimes very well indeed. At the recent Chelsea Flower Show I began chatting with one of the Chelsea Pensioners, resplendent in his iconic red coat. I invited him to St. Paul’s. He came the following Tuesday. He invited me to lunch at the Royal Chelsea Hospital, the world famous home of the Pensioners. Friends welcome. And this is how Ange, Lizzie and I got to spend Monday, a gorgeous, sunny, beautiful, London summer day, at the Royal Hospital Chelsea. What a treat!

davCharles II, motivated, as much by admiration and envy of the French system,  as desire to do the right thing, in 1681, issued a Royal Warrant to build the Royal Hospital “for the succor and relief of Veterans broken by Age and War,” and more than 300 years on it is still going strong. It is a place of wonder and beauty and its Pensioners are the toast of the town, wherever they go. “Hospital”  in its original form means hospitality more than a place of medical care, and while there is a medical wing in the current complex, is was place in which to live out life with dignity, including a bed and meals, something many 17th century soldiers would have found to be the height of luxury. Expectations have changed and so has thedav Hospital, so that the  sense of luxury remains in tune with todays standards. So much so that my friend Ange and I are plotting how we too can get ourselves a spot. We need to wait ’til we are 65, bump off  the husbands and join the army. Ok, the first two are doable, the third a bit trickier but we are resourceful women. Because this place is gorgeous! GORGEOUS.



The Wren Chapel is particularly stunning, built by the great man Christopher Wren of St. Paul’s fame himself, in the 1680s. It is still a local parish church, it was the church of Baroness Margaret Thatcher and Denis. They are both buried on the grounds. cof


Ok, the individual rooms are a bit cramped but the idea is that one spends a little time alone as possible. There are large common areas where games abound. Posters and flyers for outings are everywhere. The grounds are stunning. The bar is open from 10:30 am and that red coat. Oh how much I would like to swan round in a red coat like that. Would need to nick a few medals to pin to my chest, obviously, but otherwise I think I would look dashing. And London would fall at my feet. London falls at all the Pensioners’ feet, as well it should.

davYes, there are women in the hospital, since 2009.  Today there are 15. But they don’t get on with each other, we were told. We assumed this was just male hyberbole until Ange started chatting with the female pensioner in the gift shop. “We had a lovely tour of the Chapel from one of the other women, Xxxx.” “PHeffff” was the immediate response. “I don’t like her. No one likes her.” Ange was stunned into silence. Ok then. No group singing of “We are family, I’ve got all my  sisters with me,”  for this lot. But the men seem to get on. One of the gentlemen we met had recently been hugged, on television, by Jo Konta, at Wimbledon. The press were now after him. Are you “that man,” we joked (having been prompted  by Peter). Yes he acknowledged, with a smile, he was. But no autographs today. We all laughed. We laughed often on Monday. Peter told fantastic and funny stories of his life and his time in Chelsea. But there is a solemn side to it all as well. These are men and women who have seen conflict, of the most brutal kind. And many of their friends paid the highest price. Standing in the North Front is a larger than life statue of a Pensioner, arm raised, as if hailing a cab (it is Chelsea, after all). Around the base are the words Sir Jacob Astley spoke before the Battle of Edgehill in 1642, known as the Soldier’s Prayer: “O Lord you know how occupied I shall be this day. If I forget thee do not forget me.” Words that pierce the soul.

sdrBut this is not a sad place, not at all.  There is not any sense of what most of us generally feel when in an institution for older people: Despair. Chelsea Hospital tackles head on the great scourge of our modern times, especially for those in advancing years: loneliness. To be lonely here would take an effort. In a world that is becoming increasingly fractured and alienating, Royal Hospital Chelsea retains a tangible sense of community. A belonging. We should all be so lucky. There is a lot we could learn from this place. It was an honour and privilege to be invited in. A perfect London day indeed. dav




On Chelsea and slavery…..49/100

DSC_0008The Chelsea Flower show. The scramble for tickets, the hype, the rumours, the controversy, the Queen’s nod of approval, the breath holding for medals, the summer dresses and the rain, so often the rain, No, I am not being sarcastic. Chelsea is all these things, and more. When Britain’s favourite hobby is given the royal treatment and the country is caught in an infectious grip of gardening fever. The King’s Road is busier during Chelsea week than at Christmas, as matrons from all over the nation pack the show in the morning, casting a discerning eye over new varieties and inventive landscaping and then flock to Peter Jones in the afternoon. It is a time when we all think we are all, if only briefly, seasoned gardeners with valid opinions on the work of professionals. I love the Chelsea Flower Show. I went the first year I moved to London. I was still in the early, queasy stages of pregnancy, the weather was cool and drizzly and the crowds rather overwhelmed me. But I loved it. And returned year after year. I even joined the RHS simply to be able to buy tickets for the slightly less busy Member’s Only Days. I often went with my friend Melanie and we walked and looked and talked. And talked and talked and talked and talked. One year we talked so much that we forgot to look at a single garden. Not a single one. We had to watch the Today at ChelseaDSC_0010 highlights that evening just to come up with something to mention in the subsequent “how was it,” conversations. After that, I decided to take a few years off. Let my RHS membership lapse. Contented myself with the television round up during the week. Until this year, when I knew it was time to return. With Melanie. We would make an effort to see everything and eat ice cream.  Which we did. On the most glorious of English spring days. Sunny, warm and beautiful. It was everything I hoped it would be. And more. Because this year it wasn’t a flower that stayed on our minds, but slavery. Yes, I said slavery. Sometimes a garden is more than a garden, sometimes it is a beautiful invitation to start a very difficult conversation.

I have always preferred the smaller gardens to the Show gardens. This year was no exception. It was in the Fresh section that we found The Modern Slavery Garden, designed by physician turned gardener, Juliet Sargeant. The concept came about in reaction to the Modern Slavery Act, passed by British Parliament in 2015. In addition to listing new criminal offenses, extending powers of enforcement and introducing new measures to tackle human trafficking, the act encourages companies to study their supply chains andDSC_0045 distance themselves from any suggestion of slave labour. This last bit is hoped to be accomplished with consumer pressure. Because, as the informative garden pamphlet states, “90% of change comes through people taking action. Only 10% by changing the law.” This means, we are all responsible. Quite a heavy message for one little garden to carry. But wow, it managed it. Beautifully.

DSC_0044Familiar front doors with complimentary railings, looking so much like the entries to our own homes. But no one really knows what goes on behind doors, even well manicured doors with shiny knockers. And this is the point. Slavery is so often a hidden crime. 5,000 people are held in slavery in London alone. Of the estimated 27 million slaves in the world today, 14% are held in domestic slavery. A dear friend rescued a Phillipina woman years ago; it is a story that is uncomfortably familiar.

In the center of the garden was an oak tree, because William Wilberforce, leader of the abolition movement in Britain, stood under an oak when, on 12 May 1787, he DSC_0048announced his intention to dedicate his life to ending the slave trade. Smaller oak seedlings were dotted round the garden, a tribute to those who continue Wilberforce’s work today.

And within all the doors and symbolism, beautiful, beautiful plantings. Bright, vibrant colours of peonies, fox gloves, euphorbia, lupins and a brand new rose, created specifically for this garden, the Modern Slavery Rosa. Beauty and misery all on one tiny plot of earth. It certainly got everyone talking. The girls handing out pamphlets were eager to chat, and that is exactly what this issue needs: for people to talk about it. A lot. And ask questions. Join the #askthequestion campaign. Just take a photo of a product. Post the photo to social media, tag the manufacturer and use #askthequestion, #slavefree. The intention being to force companies to disclose whether any of their products, even far far down the line, are made by slaves. Will it work? I don’t know. But given the volume of utter rubbish on social media, using the platforms as a change for DSC_0037good seems worth a try. Who knows, it might actually work. And in years to come, we won’t need a gorgeous garden to remind us of a terrible truth. The Chelsea Flower Show: admire the plants, change the world. Fantastic!

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