Chelsea’s may be the oldest, the most famous and the one that gets all the adulation (and TV attention) but for sheer scale – not to mention the setting – it’s the RHS Hampton Court Flower Show that takes the rose.
And it is huge. Set over 34 acres in Home Park, beside Henry VIII’s fine riverside palace, it is the largest annual flower show in the world. And in this, its 25th anniversary, there are several elements that it has become known for in its relatively short lifespan; the scarecrow competition has become an entertaining feature and, since its inception in 1990, its inaugural year, the show has featured the British Rose Festival, now called the Festival of Roses.
But where none might outdo Chelsea for, if you’ll forgive the vulgarity, those ‘prostitutes for the bees’, it’s gardens and gardening culture that make Hampton Court Palace what it is. And so it should. It might not predate Chelsea as a flower show but its gardens have a rich pedigree. History’s most famous gardener, Capability Brown, was Head Gardener there. And it was recently hailed as the Garden Event of the Year by the International Garden Tourism Network. Prestige indeed.
Its international reach is probably best celebrated this year with the ‘World Gardens’, a dedicated selection of four gardens from international partners giving visitors the chance to experience different corners of the world through some very special showpieces, including the beautiful cities of Boston and Charleston in the USA, Turkey and the Aegean region, and the Impressionist Gardens of Normandy.
Located in the ‘Inspire’ zone, the world gardens reflect the growing trend of horticultural tourism not to mention the opportunity to showcase some of the many variations in gardening tradition as well as floral genus. Among this year’s themed showpieces is perhaps one of the world’s most famous gardens, that of Monet’s inspiration at Giverny. Designed by James Priest, Head Gardener of this horticultural masterpiece, the Normandy garden’s centrepiece is, of course, the Japanese bridge, over a small pond with Monet’s famous muse, the waterlily. It is fringed with agapanthus and brightly-coloured floral alleys, bringing a little bit of French impressionism to the flower show.
The first ever show garden from new designer Esra Parr is the Aegean garden. This vibrant, colourful garden is evocative of Aegean holidays and represents the timeless image of unspoiled islands, beautiful scenery, ancient sites and whitewashed villages alive with colour from bougainvillea. Blue walls have contrasting white aluminium panels set into them, which are reminiscent of the architecture of the region. Oleander shrubs and lavender are reflected in the still turquoise water of the rills set around the shaded seating area and wherever visitors stand, soft spires of deep purple and white contrast with structural cubes and spheres. It is a refreshing yet calming blend of complimentary colour and represents a glimpse of serenity among the bustle of the flower show.
The grandest of the four takes its inspiration from paradise. Set within an enclosure of high walls, featuring Ottoman and Hittite symbols in its traditional window grille, the Turkish garden draws on the two indispensable elements of Islamic gardens; water and shade. Fountains and canals create flowing, splashing and trickling water effects, as well as their cooling function, and planes and cypresses, fruit trees and flower beds in bold hot colours provide energy and excitement, and surround a pavilion offering shade from the summer sun.
Less figurative are the American entrants to the world gardens this year; from Boston and Charleston. Boston’s entry is themed as a city park, designed to give visitors a feeling of the natural beauty of the many green spaces within the city, punctuated by a park bench on a lawn, a lamppost, cobbled surrounds and a backdrop of images of the city’s landmarks. The Charleston Garden aims to capture the spirit, charm and elegance of a typical historic garden that can be found in the sub-tropical city. Wrought iron gates and railings which frame the garden give the impression of glimpsing into one of Charleston’s beautiful hidden gardens from one of the city’s streets.
These are just four of the gardens at Hampton Court Palace this year, among the 30 medal gardens available to enjoy at the show, not to mention the football pitch-sized floral marquee featuring over 100 nurseries and growers, or the 500 exhibitors offering visitors everything from nurseries and ornaments, water features, garden furniture, Hotbin composting bins, pizza ovens, Zimbabwean stone sculptures, antiques, garden tools and anything you might find in your shed.
Chelsea may represent the pinnacle of gardening prowess, the highbrow of horticulture, but it’s Hampton Court Palace that has something for everyone.
The RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Show opens on Tuesday 30th June and runs until Sunday 5th July 2015. For more information, including details on all the gardens on display and exhibitor information, visit www.rhs.org.uk.
If you can’t make it along, you can watch coverage from the show this week on BBC2 at 9.30pm or catch-up on BBC iPlayer.