So it's been a few days, and i've been reflecting on my first Chelsea experience; There were good things, bad things, and things i'd definitely do differently next time around! As a novice's gardening blog i'd like to hand along a few tips, beyond what you usually find online, for the benefit any other newbies thinking of making the journey next year. hopefully the sections below will help you have a good one!
Where to stay
If you're not local to London or nearby it's probably tempting to find a hotel as close as possible to the show grounds. Don't do this. Chelsea happens to be one of the most expensive areas of london and hotels are therefore unlikely to be the cheapest. There are literally hundreds of hotels elsewhere that will be better value, and will only be a matter of minutes away when you hop on the tube to Sloane Square (the stop nearest the show grounds). If, like many of my relatives, the thought of tackling the London Underground fills you with dread, then fear not. Simply make sure your hotel is near a stop on the District line (the green line), as you will then be on a direct train to Sloane Square, and will not need to negotiate any complicated interchanges. Good places to base yourself would be around Earls Court, Hammersmith or Parson's Green to the West, or anywhere between Victoria and Aldgate to the East, which will whizz you to your stop in minutes (tfl.gov.uk will give you the journey times from these stops to Sl Sq).
Is it easy to find the show ground from Sloane Square?
Ridiculously simple. It's a 10-15 minute walk max(at leisurely pace), and everyone is headed in the same direction. There are taxis and rickshaws hovering around the tube that will happily take you for a few quid, aswell as a bus - though you are likely to take longer to get there if you have to wait for the bus to fill up.
When to buy tickets
Tickets come out around January, so make a note in your diary for the first two months of the year to make your decision, then get the cheapest possible prices - I paid £59 for tickets that were later increased to £100 closer to the show.
This year the programme cost £8, and i've hardly looked at mine. Whilst the map in the back is somewhat useful, you can easily make do without by taking out your phone and snapping a shot of the large showground map pinned to the railings outside the gates and using that instead. There are also signposts at most large junctions inside, and lots people to ask around the grounds, so unless a costly list of exhibitor addresses really appeals, save yourself the funds and take a notebook.
What to take
No 1 most useful item was my pen. Stood by every garden is someone with a list of all the flowers in that particular garden, so you can simply ask about whichever catches your eye and underline it in the flower list that will have been thrust into your hands. You can also use these to take down any other notes about stalls/vendors of interest.
Also take a picnic. There are quite a few picnic areas scattered around, which do get busy, but from what I could see also turn over quite quickly, so a little bit of hovering should see you getting a spot to sit in a relatively short space of time. Food at the ground is expensive (drink even more so) so on your way from your hotel/home, stop at a sandwich shop (Pret A Manger highly recommended for non-londoners) to grab a sandwich and a snack bar. A hip flask is also recommended to liven up a relatively cheap coke purchased at the show.
Don't forget your camera (obvs) or rain poncho (though these do get given out by the show sponsors near the entrance), and plenty of snacks.
How to tackle the show
Little by little. It can be quite draining getting your butt out of bed early, travelling there, negotiating the crowds (more on that later), and concentrating on what there is to see. As the gardens are generally grouped together it's wise to get out your map before entering and plot your route. Plan on doing one section, take a break, the next, take a break etc etc. For this year I would have done the artisan gardens in one, rested, done one side of the show gardens avenue, rested, done the other side, rested, whizzed around the fresh gardens then headed to the Pavilion (a plan outlined roughly on the map below). Bear in mind that like any other exhibition, museum fatigue (or should that be plant fatigue) does set in after a while, so i'd recommend going first to what you want to see the most.
I cant hold out all day there, how should I decide what to see?
As someone looking for plant ideas for a very new garden, I found the Artisan Gardens and Show Gardens the most useful/enjoyable areas, very closely followed by the Pavilion. Between the gardens and the pavilion I wasted some time roaming aimlessly around the trade stalls, which is pretty pointless given you can buy just about everything there over the internet at a far cheaper prices - I was AMAZED to see the hoards gathering round various stalls examining such things as ceramic ladybirds for £15 a pop, pricey wind chimes and various other fripperies. Personally I take the view that the plants and planting is the main attraction, and found myself running short of time (and patience) once I reached the main pavilion, so next year I will be passing these by until i've finished my other must sees, then taking note of any items I see and sourcing them cheaper online.
"Give me strength and patience!" cried my mum at one point, and understandably - the crowds were overwhelming! We arrived at 11am on the Saturday, and around each show garden was a large scrum of people, and some of the pathways were full so I had to thread my way through (and in some cases come to a complete stop and wait where bottlenecks had built up). I had prepared myself for this and was ok waiting patiently for my turn to get to the front in each garden crowd, but was still surpised how many people seemed to have very little consideration for others around them and would barge, swing large bags, block pathways, and generally behave as though they were the only people there. Next year i'm planning to join the RHS as a member as i've been told that the crowds are somewhat better on members day, and will be at the gates at 8am sharp. If you can't do this, then make sure you're as early as you can be, have a zen-like state of acceptance of the crowd, and a broad sense of humour. That way you should be able to keep frustrations with others to a minimum and maximise your focus on what you're really there to see.
What were the loos like?
An important question! The toilet facilities are pretty ok, I didn't queue at all for the first part of the day, and only waited about 30 seconds or so at the end of the day. All were stocked with paper and had soap and water (this is not Glastonbury!)
Making a weekend of it
If you're from out of town, you'll be too tired to do anything much that night. But why not take in a few sights the following day. Ignore ugly tourist traps like Leicester Square and Oxford Street and take a boat down to Greenwich for a stroll around the beautiful streets, large park, and observatory. Closer in, spending a few hours sampling the delights of the fabulous wines at Vinopolis is always fun, then dinner nearby on Butlers' Wharf , or (St Catherine's Dock on the other side) is a must, with a grandstand seat of Tower Bridge while the sun goes down. As the sky darkens the lights come on, and is a sight that never fails to thrill me, even after so many years in living london! Views from the brasserie in the Oxo tower and the bar at the top of the Tate Modern are also worthwhile.
So will I enjoy Chelsea or not?
I've left this until last as it's a tricky questions. People who cant abide crowds shouldn't bother as they'll hate it, and its true that you actually get a better overall view of the gardens on TV. In terms of ideas, Chelsea probably doesn't offer a great deal more than other large RHS flower shows, however for me the theater of the whole event, seeing how the gardens i'd seen on TV translated into real life viewing, as well as examining the detail of how they were created and generally being part of the most famous flower show in the world, made it worthwhile. Treat it as a fun day out with some garden entertainment, where you get to meet a few glorious Chelsea Pensioners and enjoy the buzzing atmosphere of excitement. You can't go wrong :)
So there we have it! My top tips for making your Chelsea experience a good one. Have any questions? Let me know!