Chelsea Flower Show: The small show with a big birthday

Crowds relax away from the displays at the Chelsea Flower Show 160,000 people will visit the 11-acre site over five days. A cap had to be placed on visitors from 1988 because the show was so overcrowded

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It does not really make sense for one of the most prestigious flower shows in the world to be squeezed onto two football pitches by the River Thames.

But it has been for 100 years.

And few involved in the Chelsea Flower Show, from exhibitors to locals and grounds people, would change it.

From mid-June to late April each year, the South Grounds of a home for retired service people - the Royal Hospital Chelsea - are used by primary school groups, local residents walking their dogs and nannies with prams.

But each May since 1913 when the Royal Horticultural Society first used the land to stage what was called The Great Spring Show, gardeners and show-goers have descended.

Stephen Bennett Show director Stephen Bennett in front of the South Grounds before the show

Having had previous homes in Chiswick, Kensington and the Embankment, the show had one large tent with 244 exhibitors in 1913.

This year's event, opening on Tuesday, will have more than 500 exhibitors and cover 11 acres (44,515 sq m).

A stone monument commemorating the Battle of Chillianwallah in India in 1849 stands uncompromisingly at over 20ft between the two football pitches.

It dictates the height of the Great Pavilion where nursery displays are found.

'Special effort'

One firm, Blackmore and Langdon's from Pensford, Somerset, displayed its delphiniums and begonias at the first show and has attended every year since.

Rosemary Langdon, whose first show was in 1958, said: "Everybody who grows puts on a very special effort for Chelsea. It's a world-wide window for people who grow plants.

"It's rather smaller than it could be but on the other hand that's the magic of it and it works. The Royal Hospital in the background is such a beautiful building and it's a lovely site."

It takes 800 people 33 days to build the show.

John Langdon, whose grandfather Charles started the business, complains about the difficulties in loading and unloading each year.

He said: "It would be much easier if we had more room, but if you move it from Chelsea it ain't going to be Chelsea any more."

In 1979 the Chelsea Flower Show became so crowded that the turnstiles had to be closed and people turned away.

Flower Show Ground Sizes in Acres

The south grounds at the Royal Hospital
  • Chelsea - 11
  • Philadelphia - 32
  • Hampton Court Palace - 34
  • Melbourne - 39
  • Keukenhof (Holland) - 79

In 1987 there was talk of moving the "dangerously overcrowded" event to somewhere else in London, or out of the capital altogether.

Stephen Bennett, director of shows for the Royal Horticultural Society, has overseen 27 Chelsea Flower Shows.

He says it is the combination of the time of year when "gardeners are crawling out of hibernation", the central London location, the character of the Royal Hospital and the very high horticultural standards which make Chelsea special.

But he describes his first show in 1986 as "scary".

"I was quite taken aback at how dangerously overcrowded it was. It was just ridiculous.

"We had 250,000 people in four days in a smaller space than we now use for 160,000 people in five days. It was really, really hugely overcrowded."

A cap was placed on the number of visitors to the showground in 1988.

He said there are few cities that would get away with running a show of such international impact on such a tiny site.

Crowds looking at the rock gardens during a private view at the Chelsea Flower Show, 23 May, 1950 Crowds look at the rock gardens - once a popular early feature of the show - in 1950
Overview of the Great Pavilion at Chelsea Flower Show, 1980 Ron Willmore, grounds manager of the Royal Hospital, said the show was like a "vicarage tea party" in the early 1980s
Overview of the Great Pavilion at Chelsea Flower Show in the 1990s In 2000, the large canvass marquee seen here in the 1990s, was cut up and turned into over 7,000 handbags, jackets and aprons
Overview of the Great Pavilion at Chelsea Flower Show, 2012 The Great Pavilion is just under 3 acres (11,775 sq m) - big enough to park 500 London buses

Over the years, Ranelagh Gardens to the east of the South Grounds, has been used for catering, seating and a bandstand.

Ron Willmore, grounds manager of the Royal Hospital, will see his 31st show this year.

He said: "In 1982 it was more like a vicarage tea party compared to today's more commercial way that it's run.

"The biggest change is the development of the floral marquee and the show gardens becoming much larger."

Chelsea Physic Garden, the botanic garden in the same street as the Royal Hospital, predates the flower show by 240 years.

Trainees from the garden get involved in the setting up of the show each year.

Head gardener Nick Bailey said: "I've been lucky enough to go to other flower shows around the world and nothing else tops the quality and sophistication of what happens at Chelsea.

"The fact that the show has spent the majority of its life on the same grounds is what makes it so special."

Mr Bennett, who walks around the grounds before the setting up begins, secretly coveting currently unused areas of space, says he is confident there will be another 100 years of the Chelsea Flower Show.

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