Sometimes, dreams do come true.
And sometimes, it's not wildly difficult to make that happen. Gardeners, once they learn of it, dream about the Chelsea Flower Show. So do some of us who just love the beauty of botany. In garden-mad Britain, it's a very hot ticket, despite its size and five-day run. This year, I was able to go.
Always held in May, the show is one of the great rituals of the London year. The Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) has held it on the grounds of the Royal Hospital Chelsea, home of the well-known red coated pensioners, almost every year for a century. One immense tent called the Great Pavilion, covering about 2 acres, is the primary structure; plenty of other, smaller ones sit behind the Christopher Wren hospital buildings as one strolls toward the Thames. Landscape artists are honored with invitations to create display gardens on the site. There are talks and demonstrations, and places to buy lunch, Champagne and Pimm's Cup, the classic English summer tipple.
What's best? Flowers are everywhere, like a 7-foot-tall arrangement of the year's show emblem. But while the display gardens are nice, they're only viewable from one or sometimes two sides. The real excitement is in the great tent. Lots of very specialized growers flaunt their best. Displays loom from invited governments. A competition for young floral designers on a theme, this time evening gowns, looked like Pasadena on New Year's Day. Landscaping material such as a 12-foot tower of strawberries smelling like heaven, a retaining wall that plants could grow in, a wall of wisteria, a good amount of vegetables, and amaryllis hanging upside-down as a sort of faux roof.
And the roses--oh, the roses! David Austin Roses, sellers of both modern and ancient varieties of the rose, won a gold medal with its display, which included a garden tea table, complete with real cakes and a man's jacket tossed on a chair.
Sometimes it's hard to decide which to look at, the flowers or the guests. There are garden-club types, of course, up from the country for the day, but there also are a surprisingly large number of tweedy men in deep and serious discussions about things like triploid hemerocallis. I heard visitors speaking at least four languages. A robot advertising a new movie briefly drew a crowd.
England is not a nation of shopkeepers, but there are plenty of interesting things to buy, from organic hand lotion to immense garden furniture. A huge, handsome straw hat turned out to be reasonably priced and quite packable. On Saturday, the final day of the show, many exhibitors sell their plants rather than truck them back. It's common to see people on the underground guarding a potted tree as they head home to West Hampstead or Clapham.
Attire varies from the occasional vision from the past to dressy casual to slightly scruffy--although the vast majority is squarely in the middle. Hats range from decorative to functional. Everyone wears sensible shoes. There's a great deal of walking involved, and the big tent is set up on a grassy field, so spare your Manolos and your feet. Perhaps the most important tip is whenever you see a place to sit down, sit down. Aside from the relatively small area where food is sold, there's an amazing paucity of seating. (Alas, those dreamy display gardens' benches are just for show.)
The show sells out every year, so advance planning is a must; and tickets can be bought online. That gives plenty of time to pick out the most comfortable shoes. It's easier to dream if your feet are happy.
IF YOU GO:
• The 2015 show will be May 19 to 23. Tickets go on sale to the general public Dec. 1, but members of the RHS may buy them in November. The nearest Underground stop is Sloane Square. Several shuttles run from various places; details are on the website.
• Hotels in walking distance range from the exquisite Draycott (draycotthotel.com) to small places like the Diplomat (thediplomathotel.com) with its subterranean outdoor terrace.
• Restaurants? Of course. For high-end, big-name spots, Gordon Ramsay's flagship restaurant is farther down Royal Hospital Road. Make reservations through the restaurant's website up to a year in advance (gordonramsay.com/royalhospitalroad). I've been visiting the Ebury Wine Bar (eburyrestaurant.co.uk) for decades--one of the first of its kind--and the food is consistently excellent. And for fish and chips...You do know never, ever, to order fish and chips at a pub, right? Around the corner from the Ebury Wine Bar is the Friars Inn (21 Elizabeth St., SW1), a bare-bones chippery that's highly thought of.
• Another food activity, although not nearby, is the Eating London food tour (eatinglondontours.co.uk). It's a walking tour of the East End with a knowledgeable guide and other food lovers, with plenty of history and stops to have a bite, including a pub with its famous cat--very worthwhile.