Saturday, April 15, 2017

RHS Shows - A Requiem for a great institution

I've taken some time to get this post up, seems ages that I was down in London to do a lecture for the Royal Horticultural Society Spring Show. I'm surprised that I have never done a blog about RHS shows before as they have been a big part of my life, and have been for many other garden people, but unfortunately the way things have gone they won't be for a younger generation. So this posting is a bit of a requiem for what used to be one of London's great institutions.

This particular show was a joint effort with the Orchid Society of Great Britain (quaint that, we used to be Great Britain but at some point we became the rather anodyne United Kingdom; soon of course we probably won't be that either). The Early Spring Show always was a joint enterprise, as there never used to be an enormous amount out in March, but a lot of orchids were looking at their best. This year, much to the disgust of many RHS members, the show in the 'Old Hall' was run separately by the OSGB and everyone, including RHS members, had to pay to go in; traditionally membership entitled you to go to every show. Much grumbling at the gate.

It was a fab show, but then orchids are pretty fab anyway. What was interesting was to see how orchid growing has changed over the years. It is now far more democratic, although the social changes that have happened over the years have been in play for a long time. Once the preserve of the very wealthy, orchid growing has come down the social scale nicely over the years. Centrally-heated houses, cheap methods of mass-production, mass tourism to Thailand where people can see the things in windowboxes - all must have helped.

And one of the most intriguing aspects of the democratisation of orchid growing was here, the Writhlington School Orchid Project, a truly wonderful enterprise, especially since it is at a state school not a private one. Read about it here. It's a wonderful example of integrating hobby orchid growing with science teaching.

Anyway what I really wanted to talk about was not so much orchids but the RHS London shows. In the dim and distant past they used to be every two weeks and were even known to a previous generation as "the fortnightlies". My first awareness of them was my dad going up to London in the 1970s and coming back with catalogues of rhododendrons and pieris and all the other things which flourish on the acid sandstone of Sevenoaks where we lived. Now my dad used to hate London, so they must have been pretty good, and him a very keen gardener, to get him up there. By the time I had started going, they were down to one a month.

By the time I was running my own nursery, showing at the London shows was the obvious thing to do. So from 1988 to 1994 I used to show and sell plants for probably around six shows a year. There was always a fantastic atmosphere, a great way to get to know other growers, see new plants, meet all the top people in British gardening and make friends. Some of the people I met then are still really good friends. The thing I shall always remember was the smell as soon as you entered one of the two halls the RHS owned, a combined mix of flowers and foliage with, I suppose, an undertone of potting compost. You'd spend a day setting up, helped by whoever you knew in London you could rope in to help you. They you'd sell plants and catalogues and answer questions frantically for two days, before breaking it all up and shoving it back, minus the plants you had sold, into your van and the drive back down to - in my case, Bristol.

Shows would generally be in one hall, the New Hall, a rather splendid Art Deco edifice with a fantastic high arching ceiling and wonderful light. If they were really big shows - The Early Spring and the Great Autumn, they would be in the Old Hall and the New Hall. They generally ran for two days and were a great opportunity for people who either lived in London or would come in to London regularly, to buy plants, see what was new, meet people, use the RHS library and generally hang out. Traditionally it was the wealthy, and often quite aristocratic, folk who would have a London house or flat, as well as a country 'seat', who came. They would buy plants which would end up in their garden in the country. But they were also fantastic for people who live in London, particularly for those who were just beginning to get excited about plants and gardening. As my life began to turn from running a nursery to writing, I would quite often send people I met in publishing off to an RHS show. They always came back energised and delighted.

Sadly though, the RHS realised, around 15 years ago that they could make more money selling space in the halls to computer and antique fairs, or renting them out for exams. This coincided with the greater expense and difficulty involved in driving a van into central London, parking it outside for the duration of your setting-up, finding somewhere to park it the rest of the time you were in town, finding somewhere to stay, etc, etc. The number of nurseries began to drop off, and as they diminished, the visitor numbers began to drop too. It became a vicious circle. Many London RHS members were suspicious that the RHS were trying to kill off the shows, so they could make more money renting the halls out. There were accusations that they were not making much effort to market them. The sad thing was that as the shows began to die, the great boom in vegetable growing took off, and the RHS was no longer in a position to attract a new, and younger audience. In 2011, the RHS announced that they had leased the New Hall (now the called the Lawrence Hall) to Westminster School for 999 years, and it would be used for flower shows only four times a year. No doubt they will do good things with the £18million they got for the deal (which makes you think, what kind of school is it that has that money to spend ! the only person I ever knew who went to Westminster ended up joining the International Marxist Group - I remember him swanking around in one of those combat jackets the IRA used to wear). BUT to lose your London base, the opportunity to present gardening to one of the world's wealthiest and most dynamic cities, seems to many of us like selling the family silver for a mess of pottage. (for non-English readers, that means a bowl of watery soup). The loss of the shows has been a great sadness for many.