Spirited away

Image of Robin Lane Fox

The warning signs are up in London, so I have been preparing myself for the Olympic experience. It involves two central items, an opening ceremony to present Britain to the world and then, displays of individual excellence which will soon seem rather remote from the many of us who cannot run, jump or swim in time. Both will be festooned in commercial wrapping, none of which will be cheap if consumed, and both will be in parts of the London area which are difficult for ordinary mortals to reach at all.

My preparation has been at the big Hampton Court Palace Flower Show, which reaches its climax this weekend. It seems bigger and more varied than ever but it is no easier to reach than the Olympic velodrome for those of us who do not live immediately south of the river Thames. There is plenty of commercial wrapping round the true core. To get into Olympic training I began by streaking past a “display garden” called Social Decking. I started with the section, new this year, of World Gardens, laid out at the RHS’s suggestion, whose briefs are to promote three countries, Switzerland, Jordan and the Azores.

How do you “promote” a country in any meaningful way which actually reflects it? We have recently had the shock revelation that our opening Olympic ceremony will promote the “English countryside”. I bet it will not. The advance leaks are that it will include that defining mark of the “countryside”, the miners’ strike of the 1980s. There will surely be milkmaids with three-legged milking stools but there is not going to be a cow as the cow is to be artificial. There will be cream teas and I anticipate tame foxes on leads. There will not, I am sure, be a hint of the countryside’s new defining menaces, a wind-farm and a planning application with a “presumption to develop”. We will not see oil seed rape, either, though fields of it are smeared all over the landscape. The Forestry Commission will be left hiding in its useless coniferous woodlands which have ruined so much green and once-pleasant land.

Are there lessons to be learnt from Switzerland at Hampton Court? The Swiss Tourist Board has worked with a talented Worcestershire-based designer, 30-year-old Sadie May Stowell (www.sadiemay.co.uk) who has several years’ experience of RHS shows. Unfortunately she has never seen Switzerland. She took me round the turfed mini-mountains of her Alpine landscape and explained, correctly, the difficulty of sourcing alpine plants which will look good in early July. Her best are some pale pink flowered Androsaceus which are at home in the Himalayas. Edelweiss is up there in flower too, but it is not exactly eye-catching in a grassy landscape. Groups of violet-flowered campanulas make more impact and it has clearly been easier to plant an impression of a lowland meadow. I wondered why the centrepiece is a clear-water pond above chipped bits of slate-grey stone. Sadie explained that it is not meant to be true to actual Swiss landscape but is meant to reflect the Swiss Tourist Board’s guiding concept, Get Natural. When did you last see a Swiss of your acquaintance “getting natural”? Not, I think, when a costumed musician sat and played an elongated Alpenhorn on one of Sadie’s turf hillocks. I admire her resourcefulness but her commission was based on the “spirit”, not the reality. What sort of “spirit” will be usurping the English countryside when it parades through suburbia for the world’s TV?

Canna Ambassadour from Hart Canna Farm

I learnt something, at least, from the “Azores garden” next door. The Azores are volcanic but mercifully, they are not like Lanzarote. Chunks of volcanic rock have been brought in from the islands and the planting between them is evocatively green. The most interesting elements of it are actually immigrant plants which have invaded the Azores from elsewhere, the mophead hydrangeas, red crocosmias from South Africa and a gunnera from Brazil which is so prolific that Dutch nurserymen come to the Azores in the winter in order to hack off chunks of it and sell them in the Netherlands’ garden trade. Mophead hydrangeas have run so wild on one of the islands that there are hedges of them more than 60 kilometres long. My lesson from the Azores garden is that gardeners and their “introductions” are often a botanical menace. Perhaps the Olympics’ “countryside” will show Britain’s invading ragwort and blue speedwell in their true intrusive light. And will it be including that loathsome four-legged immigrant, the mink?

At first I thought that Jordan’s themed garden had another interloper. Designer Paul Hervey-Brookes admired the country’s spring flowers while visiting this year and won the competition to present the Jordanian landscape at Hampton Court. I sympathise with the problem, as so few Jordanian plants are available for showing from British nurseries and even his garden’s pink-flowered mallows have had to be a non-Jordanian variety. What about his startling oleanders which I associate with petrol stations’ forecourts in Italy and Spain? In fact they can be found rampant in the riverbeds of some of Jordan’s ravines. Hervey-Brookes has watched a Bedouin lady hacking up oleander branches and using them as firewood not far from one of Jordan’s biblical landmarks, the natural pillar known as “Lot’s Wife”. Inevitably illusion has had to prevail here too. The sandstone from Britain’s Forest of Dean looks decidedly like some of the sandstone in Jordan and is on duty as a substitute. I was less persuaded by the smartly cushioned “Bedouin” tent despite its amiable Jordanian companion who was wearing sandals and a headscarf and holding a self-rolled cigarette.

Canna Calimero from Hart Canna Farm

I conclude from these three keenly designed “World” gardens that “spirit” and “illusion” are commissioned to prevail over reality. I assume that the Olympic opening ceremony will be no different, not least because these “shows” have made phoniness so familiar to national PR. Our highly expensive ceremony has made itself a bed of thistles. What nonsenses will be representing our “countryside” as it is not?

Instead, the place to go in the Hampton Court Show is the Floral Marquee. I can best liken it to a display of true Olympic talent, the winning athletes at their best. At Hampton Court different nurseries are seen to those at Chelsea. The early July date encourages a different array of plants and the exhibitors include some of our National Collections. Big hanging blue baskets of Lobelia riccardii are cleverly framed against arches of scented, unusual Trachelospermum. The agapanthuses are out in force and the pink shades of the diascias are at their peak. I marvelled at the multi-coloured cannas from our National Collection in Hampshire and I made new friends with a brash variety called Lolita. A virus has been damaging many of the cannas in the mass-nursery trade, so it is a joy to see the return of disease-free, controlled stock. It is bringing back varieties which are many times lovelier than those on Mediterranean roundabouts. I give Hart Canna Farm (www.hartcanna.co.uk) my personal gold medal for a display new to the Hampton Court Marquee.

Stick with the experts and give the hype a miss. It is a good rule and if it works at a major flower show it will work at the Olympic invasion which is about to turn our lives inside out.

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