Sunday, May 25, 2008

Cloak(room) and bagger stories

I spent the final afternoon of the Chelsea flower show helping out in the cloakroom, which was being run by volunteers from the National Council for the Conservation of Plants and Gardens. Every year, the Royal Horticultural Society hands over the cloakroom to a charity each year, which means they save money on the operation, and the charity takes home all the proceeds.
The NCCPG's mission statement is "to conserve, document, promote and make available Britain and Ireland's rich biodiversity of garden plants for the benefit of everyone". Check out their website, which explains their aims and activities far better than I can (see link on the right). It's only £20 a year to join, and they run lots of tours and visits and plant sales, as well as organising the national collections of plants.
Helping in the cloakroom was a fascinating experience. Lots of people had prepared for their Chelsea trip with military efficiency, bringing picnic baskets (there are picnic areas in the woodland bit behind Eastern Avenue) and shopping trolleys with which to carry home their bargains from Sell-Off. You can't buy plants at Chelsea (though you can place orders), but on the final day, a lot of the nurseries and show gardens sell off their plants incredibly cheaply. A bell rings at 4pm, which is the signal for something that resembles a cross between a rugby scrum and the Harrods sale.
The shopping trolley de choix was a thing that Lakeland sells under the name of the Funky Trundle: basically a plastic crate on wheels with an extending handle. When folded up, it's the size of a briefcase - Lakeland sell it for £14.99.
The final day of Chelsea was a lovely sunny day, so there was a constant flow of people wanting to leave coats. About 30 minutes before the bell rang, we were very busy handing back bags and Funky Trundles to bargain-hunters. After the bell went, volunteers would occasionally dart off into the melée, returning triumphantly with three clematis for £15 (Raymond Evison's finest, no less) or a carrier bag full of lavender for £3. I wasn't really bothered about Sell-Off, but even I got the bug and managed to grab myself a white clematis from Raymond Evison for a fiver and some sort of exotic bedding that looks like a bit like a spider plant, but is greener and glossier. Whatever it was, I got four for £1.
The trouble with having a group of plant enthusiasts running the cloakroom is that we got rather distracted by the parade of interesting things going past the entrance. Sell-Off always reminds me of the bit in Macbeth when Burnham Wood comes to Dunsinane: an army of flowers sets off along the Embankment or through Sloane Square on the march to the tube or bus or taxi, with the spikes of foxgloves, or astilbes, or eremurus, waving like the banners of medieval knights.
Customers were treated to a running commentary from behind the cloakroom counter: "He's never going to get those delphiniums home on the tube in one piece"; "Ooh, look at those orchids!"; "Wow, that variegated bougainvillea is an amazing colour combination"; "Is that a colocasia, do you think? Fabulous leaves" etc etc. People started to arrive laden like Arabian camel trains, bearing anything from roses to standard fuchsias. Even the thought of getting it all home couldn't dent their air of pink-in-the-face triumph.