There’s no way of softening the conclusion that yesterday’s press day at RHS Chatsworth was quite simply a washout. Torrential rain was bad enough, turning parts of the ground into a swamp but high winds forced organisers to close the show early.
Was it the right decision? Yes, definitely. The Floral Marquees – split into two either side of an inflatable replica of Paxton’s Great Conservatory – closed just hours after the event began, such were safety concerns. Big wooden signs were laid on the grass as a precaution, the press tent was shaking ominously in the wind and I saw a large metal barrier blown over.
Still, on the first day of this new RHS show it was hugely disappointing for everyone involved and meant I saw but a small part of what is on offer. Like many others, I had opted to walk around the show gardens first, as the forecast for later in the day was worse. I did get to all of them but it meant that with only three hours at the show I saw little of the experimental Free Form installations and nothing of the nursery stands, well dressing or RHS exhibition on gardening in a changing climate – ironically named in the circumstances. It was also difficult to fully appreciate or photograph the gardens when they were being battered by the wind and rain.
Obviously, in such circumstances it’s difficult to fully assess this latest addition to the RHS line-up. However, there seems little doubt that it has potential.
The setting with the backdrop of Chatsworth House and its parkland is beautiful, although there was a feeling it hadn’t been exploited to the full, possibly due to restrictions on what could be dug up.
Many of the show gardens are difficult to photograph as any shot seems to include the bright white marquees, trade stands or food outlets; this is something that RHS Malvern has finally got right in recent years with the gardens sited on the showground so that the hills form a natural backing.
The Palladian Bridge, stunningly dressed by celebrity florist Jonathan Moseley and his team, frames not the house, but looks towards what seems to be a rear entrance at one end and the ‘Great Conservatory’ at the other; the latter divided opinion on press day with one person describing it to me looking like an overgrown bouncy castle. Having not managed to get inside, I couldn’t really decide its worth but pictures I’ve seen suggest it is striking.
So, what of the things I did see? Naturally, I headed first for the garden of Cotswold designer Paul Hervey-Brookes who heard this morning that he had won gold, Best in Show and Best Construction.
Designed for the Institute of Quarrying, it was envisaged as a garden for a professional couple and inspired by the life of a quarry.
As such, it is a garden of contrasts: soft planting, so typical of Paul’s style, set against angular rock and concrete.
Foxgloves and elder, are framed against grey, rocks are set into planting and a striking sculpture by Stroud artist Ann-Margreth Bohl, makes a dramatic end piece.
Indeed, plants silhouetted against hard landscaping seemed to be a theme of the show as did water – and not just from the sky.
The Cruse Bereavement Care garden is set around a central wall-enclosed seat area, with a long rill running through the garden.
On a grey day, the yellow lupins stood out and the curved seating area offered a welcome retreat.
For me, the highlight of the Wedgwood Garden was the ‘windows’ that gives glimpses of the garden. There’s loose planting in shades of blue and yellow with splashes of red, and a long canal of water. It is just a shame that the main window also ‘looks out’ onto a restaurant.
There are good ‘take home ideas’. Tanya Batkin’s Moveable Feast garden cleverly showcases how mobile planters can be used to create a garden anywhere.
Aimed at ‘Generation Rent’, it demonstrates how fruit, veg and flowers could transform an area of paving, while the large containers are on wheels to make them easy to move around.
Meanwhile, Butter Wakefield has produced a dreamy idyll with the Belmont Enchanted Gardens with wild flowers and vegetables, grown at Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons.
Jackie Knight has created an informal water and rock garden to celebrate her silver wedding and the 25th anniversary of her first show garden. Aptly, given the conditions at Chatsworth, it was called ‘Just Add Water’.
And Jonathan Moseley follows his success at RHS Malvern with another stunning display of how fresh flowers can transform a space. The Palladian Bridge takes visitors from cool greens and whites through a rainbow of colour to fiery shades of red and orange, while a willow snake – based on the Cavendish coat of arms – slithers through the display.
• RHS Chatsworth 2017 runs until Sunday June 11. For more details, visit the RHS