Pimm’s, parties and power players: how Chelsea Flower Show became the start of the cool crowd’s social calendar
The bees are buzzing, the Chelsea Pensioners are posing in their finest red coat tails and horticulture legend Monty Don is brushing shoulders with the Princess of Wales, Dame Judi Dench and Matthew Macfadyen among the foxgloves in the show gardens.
It can only mean one thing: Chelsea Flower Show — the most prestigious in the world and the starting whistle of the British summer calendar — is back for another six days of fashion, flowers and flashes of royalty in SW3.
“Curious, slightly mad, very British... That’s what Chelsea is all about,” Arthur Cole, head of program at this year’s headline sponsor The Newt country estate in Somerset, told guests at yesterday’s VIP opening, where everyone from actresses Keeley Hawes and Billie Piper to reality TV star Gemma Collins was seen knocking back glasses of Babylonstoren rosé at an event that felt closer to Glastonbury than the stuffy stereotype of years gone by. Drag queens, jazz bands and performers blowing bubbles in skin-tight sequin pantsuits are among the sights and sounds to look out for at this year’s show.
The annual display of cutting-edge floral designs has long been one of the hottest tickets in London’s horticultural and social calendars, and never more so than on day one, when City execs and London’s style set flood into the grounds of the Royal Hospital Chelsea to sip champagne and West Country cider and, most importantly, be pictured doing so. At last night’s gala evening — long nicknamed the Chelsea Power Show for its roster of big names and power players — the likes of Jenna Coleman, Ben Fogle and Monica Galetti were seen tucking into Westcombe cheddar toasties and flutes of Somerset-brewed cyder under the lily pads in The Newt’s exclusive hospitality suite.
The show is now in its 111th year, and there’s more to the event than rosé-fuelled galas among the roses. Recent years have not only seen the week-long affair become a riot of Pimm’s, parties and people-watching, but a shift towards championing feelgood social causes and fashion that reflects the main talking points in the natural world today. Think gardens that inspire conversations about mental health and homelessness; staff in beekeeper-style jumpsuits; and designers in head-to-toe insect-prints in a nod to this year’s most prominent (and controversial) talking point: rewilding.
Indeed, you don’t have to be green-fingered to be aware of the storm that’s been brewing over Chelsea 2023. This year’s edition is easily the wildest yet, with four of the 12 show gardens featuring weeds and The Newt’s centrepiece being a giant walk-in beehive — in many ways this is no surprise, given that last year’s best-in-show winner featured a beaver dam, dry stone wall and nature wildflowers, but a middle (green) finger up to many of the old-school brigade who believe the focus should be on gardening prowess.
This year’s (horti)culture war began before the gates even opened to the public, with rumours of an even greater focus on rewilding triggering a battle between traditionalists like Alan Titchmarsh, who think the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) needs to stop “pandering” to fashion and get back to gardening, and so-called ‘leftie’ horticulturalists championining the increasingly leave-it-to-nature approach.
Take a walk through the 2023 show and this back-to-nature format is certainly hard to miss, starting with the archway of foxgloves and sweet peas as you pass through the main gate, and most likely ending with an apple gin sourced from The Newt’s ultra-sustainable Somerset estate — if you make it that far after an afternoon sipping glasses of Champagne Pommery, this year’s official fizz sponsor.
There’s also a key focus on recycling and reusing throughout all 36 of this year’s gardens (all of them will be moved to permanent homes when the week is over), from produce grown being used to feed the Pensioners — a Chelsea first — to The Newt’s immersive installation, the Beezantium, which is surrounded by specially selected nectar-rich flowers and is designed to offer an insight into the important role bees play in our ecosystem. Look out for dancers in human-sized butterfly outfits as you pass through the main thoroughfare and make a particular note of swinging by The Royal Entomological Society’s garden, which designer Tom Massey has turned into a working lab for monitoring, studying and recording the insect life throughout show week.
But Chelsea 2023 isn’t solely about the birds and the bees. “There’s a very different vibe to Chelsea now. Yes, there’s still the schmoozing but it’s so much more about charities and spotlighting social issues,” an insider who’s attended the last few years’ events told the Evening Standard this week. The Samaritans charity marks 70 years and 134m answered calls at this year’s show with a ‘listening garden’ funded by Project Giving Back and inspired by the stories of people who found courage to reach out during a tough time, while the Princess of Wales yesterday paid a surprise visit to a garden by youth homelessness charity Centrepoint, featuring weeds to represent new growth.
This year also sees a shift away from big-money City sponsors of old (global retail bank M&G had previously been headline sponsor for 11 years) towards those with a more inclusive, eco focus like The Newt, owned by South African hotelier Karen Roos and her husband, the billionaire telecoms entrepreneur Koos Bekker. The ultra-luxe, ultra-sustainable hotel and country estate is currently enjoying its second of a four-year deal and has so far scored top marks when it comes to bringing in a cooler, younger, more diverse crowd of plantfluencers and Generation Houseplant A-listers than years gone by.
VIPs at yesterday’s preview included the likes of actors Stephen Graham and Anna Maxwell Martin, comedian Aisling Bea and singer Will Young, several of whom were seen snapping selfies with veterans such as Dame Judi Dench, Joanna Lumley and Jennifer Saunders. The King, another veteran of the show, was delighted to see many of his most beloved plants — including clematis ‘Duchess of Cornwall’, lupins and geraniums — when he visited with the Queen yesterday afternoon.
There are also, of course, many nods to the late Queen Elizabeth, who visited Chelsea last year and more than 50 times previously in her 70-year reign, always making a point of talking to exhibitors and designers. As a tribute, the Great Pavilion features a life-sized topiary of her pony, Emma, while a display celebrating the Coronation in Dave Green’s RHS A Garden Of Royal Reflection & Celebration, is designed as a tranquil space incorporating a palette of light pinks and whites to reflect her tastes (was the Princess of Wales’ pink ME+EM dress a nod to her late Majesty?).
More than 145,000 visitors are expected to attend this year’s show and consume 9,000 glasses of champagne, with the winners of the best in show award announced today.
All eyes will be on Titchmarsh if a rewilding-themed garden does take home the gold medal for another year. If you didn’t get a ticket, remember this is just the start of the season of fizz, frocks and VIP frenzy. Wimbledon kicks off in less than six weeks’ time.