THERE are nine of them. Nine Chelsea girls, or Chelsea ladies to be precise, down from Scotland, from Kelso, Keith, Castle Douglas, Dalgety Bay, North Berwick, East Lothian, from all over, and poised, secateurs in hand, to take Britain’s most prestigious gardening show by storm.
The ladies of the Scottish Association of Flower Arrangement Societies – Maggie, Elizabeth, Ann, Moira, Stefa, Linda, Fiona and the two Vals – have come to the Chelsea Flower Show, which opens on Tuesday, to create a huge display on behalf of all Britain’s floral artists, the first time this honour has fallen to Scots in almost a quarter of a century. “Just to be here is beyond belief,” says Maggie Scott, the 66-year-old chair of SAFAS. “To win a medal would be wonderful. You can’t put it into words.”
They will have to wait until Tuesday morning to find out whether they have won in their floral display category. Certainly, they face stiff competition from, among others, the Horticultural Society of Trinidad & Tobago, and a party of Thai flower arrangers who have created a temple using 30,000 sprays of orchids.
“It is every flower arranger’s dream to come to Chelsea,” says Val Davidson, the steadfast Fifer who has designed the Scottish display and who has a wee touch of Miss Jean Brodie about her. “We’re under enormous pressure. There might be tears before we finish. It’s a huge honour and you don’t want to let anybody down. Only the crème de la crème compete here.”
The Chelsea Flower Show is always a big deal – “the Mount Olympus of horticulture” as Boris Johnson has called it – but this year, being the centenary, it is especially Olympian in its majesty and hype. The 161,000 tickets sold out in no time at all, and are reportedly changing hands on the black market for £500 each, 20 times their face value. Even Liam Gallagher, once of Oasis but now, apparently, more interested in water features, has asked to be added to the guest list. He will be, however, by no means the most lauded celebrity in attendance; that honour goes to Lady’s Slipper, Britain’s rarest orchid, which will be guarded, while on display, by a phalanx of security guards.
Garden gnomes have, traditionally, been banned from Chelsea, but this year there has been a change in policy. There is a rumour going around that a gnome, painted in the blue and white of Newtonmore Shinty Club and nicknamed “Titch”, has been sent from the Highlands for the personal attention of Alan Titchmarsh. Neither Titchmarsh nor Liam Gallagher cause much excitement among the ladies of SAFAS. “But,” muses Ann Allan, a retired police officer from Aberdeen, “if Diarmuid Gavin turned up, I wouldn’t say no.”
The show takes place in the grounds of the beautiful Royal Hospital Chelsea, designed by Wren. In the quietly affluent red-brick streets round about, Chelsea pensioners trundle by on mobility scooters, the gold lettering on their pill-box hats glinting in the morning sun. At the main entrance to the show, hard by the sluggish Thames, there is already a frenzied air. Trucks deliver great loads of turf, rolled soil-side up, like giant Swiss rolls; and workmen in hi-viz tabards, bearing the legend “Get laid” stagger under the weight of bedding plants. Inside the Great Pavilion it’s a psychedelic jungle – monstrous ferns, phallic cacti, a Spitfire made of sedum flying through a blue hydrangea sky.
I find the SAFAS display near the back of the hall. It is Friday when I visit and they must finish on Sunday, so they are working against the clock. The display is massive: 20 feet square and about 20 feet high, an approximation of a coral reef created from 3,000 blooms; created in consultation with the Marine Biodiversity Centre at Aberdeen Uni. Ann Allan, “the baby of the group” at 52, is up on scaffolding, wearing a hard-hat, placing an orchid just so. “I’ve spent so long up here,” she says. “The smell of roses wafting up is just heavenly.”
Val Davidson, part director, part choreographer, strict mistress of minutiae and guardian of The Big Picture, calls up to Ann with instructions: “I think that orchid on the far side has moved. There’s something not right. There’s a lot of green leaves showing. Right, move the wee one towards me slightly. That’s it. Perfect.”
The display, called Far Below The Sea Blooms, has been inspired by a poem by Percy Shelley and by the underwater photos of Jacques Cousteau. It has been two-and-a-half years in the planning, and since the ladies arrived in London they have been working 12-hour days. The potential for mishaps is huge; frost, rot, anything could go wrong. The judges are merciless – they can spot a dud leaf at a great distance, and any flower with the slightest blemish is not worth putting in. To ward off stress and exhaustion, the ladies rely on tea, shortbread, and good solid Scottish home cooking, courtesy of their comrade Maggie Scott, who used to be a B&B landlady. “We had stovies last night, and shepherd’s pie the night before,” says Maggie. “I’ve made lentil soup and macaroni cheese. Moira there is a farmer’s wife from Kirkcudbright and she likes her porridge in the morning.” In the evenings they have gin.
Most of these women are grannies, and many of them got into floral art through arranging flowers in their local church. They are of the generation where an entrance hall or dining room table is incomplete without a nice vase of blooms. Not one of them, I am sure, would turn up their nose at a bunch of daffs in a jam jar, yet here they are at the cutting edge of their particular art form.
Floral displays, these days, can be mind-blowing, verging on stomach-turning. Take, for example, Psycho – the creation of Johan Whyte, an Aberdonian accountant, and her friend Fiona Davies, both members of the Aberdeen & County Floral Art Club. Psycho, which won gold at the Gardening Scotland show last year, was a life-size depiction of the shower scene from Hitchcock’s thriller, red carnations and anthuriums representing a pool of blood oozing out on to the bathroom floor. Johan and Fiona had considered making Norman Bates’s knife out of honesty seed-pods, but decided, on reflection, that this was going a shade too far. Still, as an illustration of how far contemporary flower arranging has come from its fusty image of hyacinths and church halls it is hard to beat.
There are 89 flower arranging clubs in Scotland, scattered like petals from Orkney to the Borders, with around 5,000 members, even a few blokes. What’s the attraction? Everyone says it’s very therapeutic, arranging flowers, and also that it can become an obsession. Those at the top end, competing for prizes, say that the secret is to have a tolerant family; men-folk who won’t mind too much if the tea is late to the table and the ironing not done. It sounds horribly old-fashioned and chauvinistic, I know, but that’s what you hear. “Flower arranging can be very competitive,” says Maggie. “It’s like men with their golf.”
It is fascinating to watch the SAFAS women work. Like watching a painter paint, a sculptor sculpt. It’s all about composition and colour balance. They aren’t working from any plan. Val Davidson, incredibly, has the design in her head: orange chrysanthemums next to pink carnations next to purple statice; the display builds little by little, developing a sense of rhythm. Tiny steps towards perfection, that’s the way: cleaning moss with a soft brush, as if it were a favourite jacket; pinning back aspidistra leaves, as if taking up hems.
The chat is a mix of Scots and Latin – “Yon cupressus cashmeriana looks awfy nice.” The range of plants they have brought with them from Scotland is astonishing, three vans full of the stuff – some from Edinburgh’s Royal Botanic Garden, some from a Chinese supermarket on Leith Walk. The ladies have a beautiful array of flowers, and I think I can say, without fear of contradiction, that their brassicas are magnificent.
“One of the curses of being a flower arranger is that you cannot throw anything away,” says Ann. She points to what looks like an exotic branching sponge. “That’s a bit of whin that was bleached white. I found it washed up on Kingston beach in Morayshire. It’s been in my shed for 10 years and now it’s having its moment of glory at Chelsea.”
What’s fascinating is that all of this energy and stress and effort is going into something which cannot be kept. The glories created here today will, before long, fade and wilt and rot and stink. They will return to Scotland with empty vans; hopefully with a medal, but nothing of their work but memories and photographs. They have accepted this, though, and consider transience to be part of the beauty of what they do. Indeed, the whole art-form might be thought transient; young people don’t seem interested in joining the floristry clubs, and there is a worry that this generation could be the last group of Scots to represent their country at Chelsea.
That would be a great shame, but it has been a pleasure to meet this group of women – doughty and douce every one. Oh, flower arrangers of Scotland, when will we see your like again? «