11th November 2013
I can’t quite believe it!I am finally in and will be doing my first show garden at Chelsea Flower Show ever in May 2014.It has been a bit of a helter skelter journey though, and at times I never thought we would make it!
It all started just over a year ago in October 2012.I was standing in front of John Nash’s painting Over the Top at the Imperial War Museum and I thought that is what I will do for a show garden at Chelsea Flower Show -a garden to mark the centenary of World War One in 2014. Of course! But how to go about it? I decided that my first task was to find a charity partner and I immediately thought of ABF The Soldiers Charity as I had recently met the Chief Executive, Major General (Retd) Martin Rutledge at a lunch party so he was the obvious first stop.I approached him and asked for a meeting but realised that I would have to sort out my thoughts and ideas before seeing him.
In addition to the wonderful paintings by WW1 artist such as Nevinson, the Nash brothers and Orpen, I had also come across some brilliant photos of WW1 battlefield sites as they look now by a photographer called Mike Sheils and these had got me totally inspired as some of the photos clearly showed signs of the battles even now, nearly 100 years after the war. So my concept started to develop.
I met up with Martin Rutledge’s senior team and presented the idea, the inspiration and ideas behind the concept and roughly ran over my early thoughts about how the design would work.I wanted it to be a landscape rather than a garden with some kind of mound of earth, the vestiges of trenches cut out of grass and an area of water representing a mine crater.Beyond that, I was not sure as I still had not visited the Western Front.Amazingly the ABF team listened to me and said that they would consider the proposal and get back to me.
My next move was to actually visit the battlefields for the first time.My close friend Simon Doughty had served in the Life Guards and retired a few years ago, since when he has taken groups to the battlefields of Europe.He is a military historian and really knows his stuff.Consequently he was able to design a trip to give me my first view of the Western Front.We travelled over to Flanders and then on to the Somme.We looked at the mine craters around Ypres, now used as watering holes for cattle, we attended the daily Last Post Ceremony at the Menin Gate, we visited Tyne Cot where tens of thousands of men are buried or commemorated, we went to Passendaele and I was fascinated!
We then went down to the other key theatre of war in Northern Europe, the Somme in France a very different landscape of chalk downlands reminiscent of the downs around Marlborough or the South Downs.Here farming has largely obliterated many of the signs of WW1 but there are cemeteries just everywhere including little baby ones dotted on hillsides.Quite unbelievable.
now felt totally inspired to move forward with my design.And the good news was that ABF agreed to come on board as my charity partner.
The Search for Sponsorship
While ABF had decided to work with me, as a charity, they would not be able to support me financially.So we had to find a commercial sponsor who would pay for the costs of the construction of the garden.Originally I said the cut-off date for finding sponsorship should be March 2013 to give us time to make our formal application to the RHS.However, as the winter wore on and we got constant knock backs from potential sponsors, I became increasingly morose and disheartened. Why on earth did people not see what a fantastic idea it was to do a Show Garden at Chelsea Flower Show?Well they didn’t and by March no sponsor had been found.Slightly despondent, we extended our deadline to May 2013, the end of Chelsea Flower 2013.At last our luck changed and ABF and I each found a sponsor.So we suddenly had two! And both were really perfect. Coutts, one of the UK’s longest established banks and Bechtel, the privately owned US infrastructure company.
We could now apply to the RHS to do the garden.This was our last hurdle.We had to get through a pretty long and comprehensive process involving a specialist committee who looked at our concept, the design, the funding, the suppliers, the contractors.We applied in August and only got the go-ahead a couple of weeks ago, nearly three months later.All partners were on tenterhooks throughout the process but finally we have made it!