Chelsea - a dream comes true!
I have long held a dream of exhibiting at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, ideally making or contributing to a garden but that was just a dream. But part of the dream has come true – I have been to Chelsea as an exhibitor! Not on my own of course, but part of team celebrating 100 years of the British Iris Society (BIS). Did I enjoy it – Yes – would I do it again - Yes – was it exhausting - Yes! But it was great fun and the sense of achievement was tremendous, it was worth every bit of the hard work, the worry, the long days and the sheer time that these things take. There were four of us in the design team and seven other members who contributed behind the scenes. One of our early decisions was that it would be a team effort, with each of the four of us being involved in all the decisions, so we all shared the blame if it all went wrong!
During the months of preparation, COVID interfered and we had to meet outside in the freezing cold, so as not to infringe the rules that were in place at the time. Hats, fingerless gloves and woolly socks were very necessary as was hot soup and coffee galore! Designs came and went, ideas flew around the table, some more practical than others, after all we were total novices as far as Chelsea was concerned, none of us had ever exhibited there before. Eventually a plan was agreed to celebrate 100 years of the Society told through the irises themselves, art from our members and information on some of the members who had contributed over the years.
The magic day was 1st December 2021 when we heard we had been accepted and what is more, we were given a prime position in the centre of the marquee, next to the monument. So, no pressure! I was the nominated contact with the RHS because of my address, it was the furthest away from Chelsea. Exhibitors are paid for one return journey to Chelsea – nothing to do with my IT skills or my ability or lack of ability to fill in forms! Members rallied round and supplied or loaned irises, which were grown on for us by Claire Austin a BIS member, with a successful past record of growing for Chelsea.
Props were gathered together, material sourced, back boards created and painted. Paintings sourced, framed and seed collected and packaged, 500 packets of them! We didn’t have a space big enough to do a mock-up of our 7 x 4 metre island display, so each element was worked separately either on a team members patio or their dining table!
The van was loaded on the Thursday am – and we were off! The BIG adventure had started, was I nervous – no not really, we had done our preparation well, with lists to make sure we didn’t forget anything and we didn’t, we even remembered food to keep us ticking!
On arrival, passes were soon sorted, and we entered the Great Pavilion, it was hive of activity already with those in the know having made a much earlier start than us and of course some of the bigger stands needed to be well on the way by now. But it was not all plain sailing, the stand had been built back to front and was one metre too short!
Then the fun started, where to begin, we had a plan for that as well and all went ahead as we had hoped. Just a few minor changes, but generally all fitted well and once our irises arrived from rural Wales on the Friday we were definitely off the mark! The hardest part was keeping things clean, the Great Pavilion is a very dusty area and often causes what is known as the Chelsea cough. There was no time to look round to see what others were doing, although obviously others managed this as several friends from other nurseries and societies did drop by to say hello. But the friendliness of other exhibitors, always willing to help was incredible.
The time just flew by, and gradually over the weekend the stand took shape and we could see that all the preparation had been worth it. We had involved the prestigious fabric company GP Baker in our design as George Baker was a founder member of our Society as well as founder member of that company, so a couple of their fabrics were used. Moorcoft the art pottery company had created a special range of iris inspired pieces to celebrate our Centenary and it was a magical moment when they arrived ready to be displayed in our gallery area.
Of course, we did leave things a little late and really could have done with being finished earlier but then that is part of the learning curve as was the whole experience. But when Joe Swift came to film, we looked fine. By Press Day all was completed and we were dressed in 1920 style outfits. When this idea was first mooted, I was not keen, but eventually agreed as long as I did not have to wear a frock! So, it became a bit of a tease, but I was very happy in my 1920 style trousers and striped blazer, with a bow tie of course!
The Tuesday morning soon dawned, we were at Chelsea very early and could see several Gold Medal cards on the stands as we walked through the pavilion, which added fuel to our thoughts and concerns. But then - WOW there was GOLD medal on our stand, I quickly checked it was for us as we really couldn’t believe it – an emotional moment for the four of us from the design team. We were very proud of what we had achieved to help the Society to celebrate its centenary, a fitting tribute to all the members past and present who had contributed in any way.
Once we were over the excitement, the day soon started and visitors sought out our stand as the Society had been filmed prior to Chelsea at our Centenary Show and of course with Joe earlier. We were soon busy answering questions and just chatting irises – bliss! Other society members and some of their friends came to help to man the stand and we left, with a slight tear in our eyes for others to take over and take the reins through the next few days.
Of course, it was a sad moment when we arrived on the Saturday pm to commence the sell-off and then to dismantle the stand. But with several members helping it was soon achieved and we left a very bare stand – almost unbelievable to think what had been achieved but also how transient these things are – but I am sure that all who were involved in any way will have super memories to last for ever – I certainly will!
Thank you to all who helped, to my colleagues on the design team, Fern, Anne and Rex who were brilliant and to the others who helped in a myriad of ways including Claire, Jeremy, Jake, John, Christine, Alun and Chris. But also, to BIS members, both past and present for their support and enthusiasm.