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Eleven acres, 46 gardens, five days, 160,000 visitors and 8,000 bottles of Champagne: it all adds up to a landmark first date in the summer social calendar. Now in its 85th year, the RHS Chelsea Flower Show brings a refreshingly genteel start to a season studded with sporting fixtures – great for chatting to clients without the distractions of more riotous events. But it’s no village fête. As the largest show of its kind in the world – a catwalk for the leading talents in the garden design world – it’s certainly more Dolce & Gabbana than the Women’s Institute.
Green-fingered clients will be captivated, but even the horticulturally challenged will appreciate the spectacle. After all, £4m worth of greenery is not to be sniffed at (unless you’re a hayfever sufferer, that is). The Square Meal team, whose combined gardening skills could see off even the hardiest of shrubs, was certainly impressed. During our visit to the 2006 show, we marvelled at gardens made up of dramatic desert plants, gurgling water features and striking man-made installations and were bowled over by the line-up of pint-size bonsai trees, exotic orchids and open-jawed carnivorous plants that were on display in the Great Pavilion.
This year promises even more floral finery and the best way to enjoy it all – whether you’re an enthusiast or uninitiated – is undoubtedly from a base in the show’s hospitality village.
Close to the action but mercifully removed from the crowds, 20 elegant, white marquee chalets with alfresco seating areas accommodate between 30 and 40 guests each for dinner. Larger groups can join them together to host dinners for up to 160, while smaller parties can be accommodated around tables of 10 in shared chalets. Full-day hospitality packages include morning coffee and patisserie, canapés and Champagne, a four-course lunch and afternoon tea, plus a complimentary bar from 11am to 6pm.
With such a comprehensive schedule of refreshments on offer, you might wonder when you’re going to have time for the flowers. The secret is to arrive early.
cabin-flower22.jpg Square Meal’s day at last year’s show got under way with a morning stroll around the spectacular show gardens – best appreciated before the crowds set in – after which we retired to the relative calm of the chalet. Here, we took advantage of the downtime before lunch by picking the brains of the resident horticultural expert. Everyone agreed this was an inspired element of the hospitality package, although we’d also love to see the introduction of guided tours. The added luxury provided by private, queue-free loos can’t be understated either.
The convenient location of the hospitality village made to-ing and fro-ing incredibly easy. We were able to head back out to soak up the sights and smells when we felt like it.
Fellow guest Theresa Dupuy of Marrick PR was delighted with the arrangement. She said: ‘The chalet is a haven where you can escape the hustle and bustle of the busy paths and re-charge your batteries with delightful food in excellent company. Then it’s back out to join the throng of people all trying to catch a glimpse of the displays and celebrities.’ Whether you go for full-day hospitality or the less expensive evening option – which allows access to the show from 3.30pm, for clients who can’t manage a whole day out of the office – the catering at Chelsea is superb. Everything we sampled, from pretty-as-a-picture pre-lunch canapés to a delicately prepared fillet of barramundi on a potato disc with Asian greens and a witty Pimm’s and Lemonade dessert, was deftly executed.
Meanwhile, the smiling staff – good humoured to the last – glided effortlessly round, topping up glasses and making sure everyone was comfortable.
‘I have never been so well looked after before,’ said Jo Woolley, head of PR and marketing at the National Army Museum and one of the many Square Meal guests to comment on the sense of occasion in the hospitality village.
But it was ultimately the setting that made the event so magical. As the sun sank lower in the sky, the strains of a jazz band floating across the lawn to accompany our last glasses of freshly made Pimm’s, we struggled to imagine a more perfect way to welcome the great British summer.
DOs and DON’Ts Do… consider the various hospitality options. The full-day package makes the most of both horticultural and culinary offerings, while the evening alternative saves time and
money. Note, too, that packages get cheaper as the week progresses.
Don’t… bring your car. Take the short walk from Sloane Square tube station or pick up one of the bright orange rickshaws outside – by far the most enjoyable way to get to the show.
Do… arrive early. Doors open at 8am, but as most visitors turn up closer to 10am, the first couple of hours are the best time to see the show gardens.
Don’t… forget to come prepared for English weather. This may be the first opportunity to show off that fab new summer frock but ladies are also advised to bring a warmwrap and flat shoes – there’s a lot of ground to cover.
Do… take a light waterproof jacket or foldaway umbrella. In case of rain, these will help you manoeuvre easily among a plethora of golf brollies.
Don’t… lose the handy map provided. It’s nigh-on impossible to see signs among the crowds, which means the show can easily turn into a maze.
Do… keep in touch with other guests via mobile, but switch it to vibrate mode so that you can feel it above the show’s noisy chatter.
Don’t… forget about the shopping. This is the place to pick up gardening ideas and materials and, as a hospitality guest, you can drop things off in the chalet instead of carrying bags around all day.
Do… visit on the Saturday for the final-day sell-offs. Scout out any plants you want to buy, note the relevant stand numbers and return for the 4pm sales. As the stands begin to close, you may even pick up a freebie.
Don’t… leave without making a note of local hostelries for post-event drinks. Our favourites include The Phoenix (23 Smith Street), The Cross Keys (1 Lawrence Street), The Builders Arms (13 Britten Street) and the large heated beer garden at Henry J Beans (195-197 King’s Road).