In the palace at old Hampton Court
Henry VIII flashed his hampton for sport;
Young Anne Boleyn saw it
And knew she was for it,
Lost her head and became his consort
(though not in quite that order).
Sorry, couldn't resist slipping that one in. And since so much of the Hampton Court Palace Flower Show this year was themed on Henry VIII, it's almost relevant.
Hampton Court Palace is famous for many things: its history, its architecture, its maze, its Real Tennis court (the oldest in the world) and its grounds. The latter comprise 60 acres of formal gardens - with ornamental water-features, fountains and parterres - and 750 acres of verdant parkland on the banks of the Thames just across the river from Kingston. It's an attractive setting, and in many ways the ideal location, for the largest of the Royal Horticultural Society's annual Flower Shows - indeed, the largest flower show in the world.
* Scope of the show *
Although the Chelsea Flower Show is generally regarded as the more prestigious event, its Hampton Court counterpart covers more ground, has more exhibitors and encompasses a wider variety of features and themes. There is a contrast, too, in the atmosphere of the two shows. Chelsea, it seems to me, is for serious horticultural devotees, for the garden design in-crowd, for fashionistas and for socialites. Hampton Court is more for the everyday gardening enthusiast, and for families. A day out at Chelsea can be impressive, aspirational or even inspirational. A day out at Hampton Court can be equally inspirational, but at a less rarefied level, and is much more likely to be light-hearted and relaxed. Of the two, I personally much prefer Hampton Court.
2009 being the quincentenary of Henry VIII's accession to the throne, the organisers this year had a ready-made focus for additional features, utilising that monstrous monarch's historic association with the venue. They used it creatively and entertainingly, but one of the results was that there was almost too much going on at the show for the visitor to take in. Seeing everything there was to see would more than fill a long day and leave the visitor footsore, but one couldn't fault the show for the scope of what it had to offer, or for its value.
* Themes and variations *
So what's the Hampton Court Palace Flower Show all about? Apart from flowers, obviously. It's worth mentioning the flowers first, because although they are presented in the context of various themes, the show remains a celebration of all things floral above everything. The vast Floral Marquee is just one of the spaces filled with hundreds of thousands of blooms of every variety, overwhelming the senses with their colour and scent. They would be sufficient reason for a visit in themselves, but there's more to the show than flowers alone. Many of the features are designed to present gardening in the twin context of the environmental and the enjoyable.
Under the environmental heading would come a section of the showground devoted to 'Garden Energy', with exhibits demonstrating how gardens can be used to support energy conservation and even energy generation and how they can be adapted to cope with climate change. Another section entitled 'Growing Tastes' focuses on allotments, organic methods and growing one's own food. The Plant Heritage Marquee is concerned with horticultural bio-diversity, and there was this year a nearby set of small show gardens designed for sustainability.
In case this all sounds rather too worthy or even preachy for some tastes, any such tendencies are offset by the near frivolity of other exhibits that come purely under the heading of enjoyable. Most frivolous of all this year was a competition for Tudor-themed scarecrows, designed and made by pupils at local schools, about thirty of them in all. All were worth seeing, most were imaginative, many were amusing and some were simply brilliant. The competition was judged by visitors, who voted as they went round. My vote went to a hilarious caricature of an overweight, buffoonish Henry. I do hope he won - I've been unable to find out from the relevant website.
Another apparently light-hearted feature - though for all I know the participants may regard it as deadly serious - is the 'Catwalk in Bloom' tent, which has now been running for several years. Here is to be found an exposition of how horticulture can influence fashion design, with a continuous parade of models in garments incorporating floral motifs, materials, textures and patterns. Meanwhile in another corner of the showground the rather confusingly entitled Floral Energy Studio hosts exhibitions and demonstrations of flower arranging. Among this year's exhibits, I liked best the floral tea party exhibit by Jane Packer, complete with teapot and cake wittily composed from blooms.
All this without yet having mentioned the main show gardens, nor the equipment, ornament, input and other trade stands that form much of the bread and butter business of any such show.
* Show gardens *
Perhaps because there is so much else to divert the visitor's attention, the show gardens are rather less prominent a highlight at Hampton Court than are their equivalents at Chelsea. Nevertheless, they still embody a lot of creative effort and receive plenty of attention, and there are more of them than are at first apparent.
The nine main ones this year were all in line in a 'Garden Walk' beside one of the stately canals that divide up the Hampton Court showground. As usual, I found plenty in them to like, and plenty to dislike; and as usual, I found myself out of sympathy with the official judges in my preferences. This may be because I have a naïve view of garden design: to me an attractively-designed garden is one filled with colourful plants and not paved over with hard landscaping. I would make an exception for hard landscaping that is truly artistic, like the Maggy Howarth pebble mosaics that decorated the 'Beekeeper's Garden', but elsewhere among the show gardens much of it seemed unattractive, unnecessary, and anti-environmental.
For example, so far as I was concerned, an excess of paving spoiled an otherwise charming garden entitled "Enchanting Escape" that featured an open-air double-bed (perhaps not the most practical outdoor furniture in our British climate), and suspended seats. I don't much like abstract/symbolic elements either, such as the odd lectern-like oak structures that surrounded a garden called 'Quilted Velvet', apparently about responsible forestry. You could have fooled me. But the judges awarded this a Gold Medal, so what do I know? Much easier to relate to was the bucolic 'Pastures Bye' the caravan at its centre symbolising nothing but itself, although to my mind the semi-transparent panels representing shepherd and flock looked all too artificial and out of place.
Talking of symbolism and artifice, this year there were a set of five 'conceptual gardens', intended to "question and redefine existing design boundaries". Let me quote from the catalogue commentary on each of these: "the installation consists of a cuboid structure that is analogous to someone's memory"; "the immediate surface area appears to be empty, barren, sterile"; "The scenes are expressed in Zen terms"; "Monstruosa (monster in Spanish) is an extraterrestrial visitor"; "the polished concrete plinth is a striking man-made fabrication, representing man's ability to create beautiful yet durable legacies in the landscape". I fear I find all this irritatingly pretentious. It may, perhaps, be art and/or gardening, but not as we know them, and not as I want to know them either.
Much more to my taste were the six special show gardens dedicated to the six wives of Henry VIII. These were not without their symbolic side either, but it was symbolism to a purpose, using historic images related to the individuals and their history, not mere abstractions. Moreover, the symbolism is as much expressed through plants as through ornaments, as with the pomegranate tree, the traditional emblem of her royal house, in the design dedicated to Katherine of Aragon, or the bewitching ingredients of Anne Boleyn's. Another outdoor four-poster bed, but this time more practically blanketed in thyme, is the centrepiece of Katherine Howard's memorial. That one didn't look too comfortable, but these gardens were mostly very appealing in themselves, places in which one could actually imagine oneself sitting and enjoying the atmosphere.
Last, but not least, there was a set of fourteen "small show gardens", some of which were indeed very small. There is not space here to describe them in detail, but two stood out for me: Macmillan Cancer Support's interesting offering composed of plants used in cancer medication, and Owlsmoor Primary School's educational specimen designed to be maintained easily by pre-teens as they learn the basics of growing food.
* Other exhibits *
Apart from the main features described above, the Hampton Court show is every year packed with stands exhibiting and selling everything for gardens that you can possibly imagine: from plants to parasols, from greenhouses to gloves, from sprinklers to sculptures, from books to barbecues, from fountains to footwear, from lanterns to lawnmowers, and so on. You can, if you are so inclined, buy a slightly slighted Gothic Folly to erect in your own garden, at anything from £795 to £4295, or upwards for a bespoke design.
This brings us to another big marquee, or in this case 'Pavilion', sponsored by Country Living Magazine. The theme here was country crafts and products for house and garden: clothing and textiles, ceramics and tableware, food and culinary specialities. All useful and sometimes attractive, good quality stuff, but not specifically horticultural, and I did wonder a bit about its place in the show. Still, lots of visitors were inside and seemed to be finding plenty of merchandise to interest them.
The Hampton Court showground is very well provided with places to eat and drink, from sit-down restaurants and tearooms to mobile stalls selling snacks and beverages. Prices tend to be a touch on the high side, but perhaps not excessive for such an event. There are a few covered sitting areas dotted around for people patronising the stalls, and for the many visitors who bring their own picnics. These places are ample if the weather is fine, when a fair number of people are content to sit on the grass, but very over-subscribed if it rains. Probably this is unavoidable in such a busy show.
Lavatories, also dotted around the showground, are of the portakabin type, but clean and adequately-equipped. As so often appears to be the case, there was little queuing necessary for the Gents, much more for the Ladies. I hesitate to draw any conclusions as to the significance of this observation.
Most visitor services have been very well thought out. There is a well-equipped under-cover play-space for kids, which I feared might be a bit on the small side for the potential demand, but wasn't over-crowded on the day I visited, despite frequent showers. Talking of creches, there is also a 'Plant and Product Creche', like a left luggage office, at which you can leave plants or merchandise you have bought, enabling you to continue unencumbered round the show. And if, by the end, you find you have bought too many to manage, you can employ the services of a 'Plant Porter' (who mostly seem to be students doing vacation work) to help you carry them back to your car.
* Organisation *
The visitor services just described are typical of what seems to be a very slick organisation underlying the show. The car-parking is efficiently marshalled. On the way in we encountered no delay at the mandatory security check or entry turnstiles. The show staff are generally helpful and well-mannered. Details like the sun protection cream available at first aid posts are impressive.
The catalogue, maps and signposting within the show were generally good, and we had little difficulty in identifying what was what or in finding our way around, despite the scale of the show and the complexity of its different elements. There was, though, one uncharacteristic exception to this general rule: although a feature dedicated to the Hidden Treasures of the Mary Rose, complete with galleon-shaped topiary, was highlighted in the catalogue, there was no clear indication of where to find it on the ground, and indeed we didn't. Maybe the 'Hidden' is meant to be taken at face value. In my view, though, the RHS can be forgiven this minor glitch, considering the high standard they achieve overall.
* Getting there *
I began this review by saying that Hampton Court is "in many ways" the ideal location for an event of this kind, and so it is. One way, though, in which it is less than ideal is access, either by road or by public transport. By road, the showground can only approached by the busy, one-lane-each-way A308, and this does become congested when the show is in progress. Parking is ample once you reach it, and there is a park-and-ride service for the more distant car parks, but reaching it can take some time. Several bus routes (111, 216, 411, 451, R68, 513) pass the palace or nearby, but the same congestion obviously affects them too.
By rail, the nearest station is Hampton Court, to which trains take about half an hour from Waterloo. This is just across the river, but on the far side of the Palace from the showground, which thus entails more of a walk than just crossing the bridge. There are ferry services from the station that cut the corner, and in fine weather this is a rather splendid way to arrive at the show, but the queues for the ferries can be lengthy at peak times. The nearest tube station is Wimbledon, which is a long way off, but where you can change onto the same trains that run from Waterloo.
* Entry cost... *
...depends both on which day you go and on whether or not you are a member of the RHS. Full day tickets for members range from £32 (on members-only day) down to £22; for the general public the price is £27. If you don't arrive until 3.00 p.m., however, you can buy a part day ticket for £20/£14 (members) or £17 (non-members). The show closes at 7.30 each evening.
One really family-friendly feature is that each paying adult can take in up to two children under 16 entirely free of charge. Evidently - and rather admirably - the RHS is serious about encouraging future generations to take an interest in gardening.
It certainly makes for a less expensive family day out than you would experience, for example, just a few miles at Chessington.
* Recommendation *
To anyone with an intense enthusiasm for gardening my recommendation will, I'm sure, be entirely superfluous. They'll already know that the Hampton Court Palace Flower Show is for them.
What I would try to do, though, is to encourage those with only a relatively mild enthusiasm to give it a go, particularly those with families. They won't be bored, and neither will their children, and I suspect they will come away feeling they had had plenty of value for the entry fee. Hampton Court is a huge and varied show, so much that you don't have to see everything, or even to like everything you see, in order to enjoy it.
© duncantorr 2009
Unfortunately, by the time I knew I would going to the HCPFS and suggested it as a "product" to Dooyoo, and by the time Dooyoo got round to listing it, this review couldn't appear in the week of the show itself. But I'm posting it anyway in the hope that it may be of interest, and that it will give prospective visitors in future years a flavour of what the Hampton Court event is like. And if you hurry, you'll be just in time to visit its northern counterpart at Tatton Park.