The Royal Cornwall Show 2006

Tracy Wilson looks back at the county show at Wadebridge

'I have to say, that if you picked up the flower show at the Royal Cornwall and you took it en masse to Chelsea, and you put another marquee there and called it ‘Cornwall’ it would stand alongside the Chelsea exhibits and you could stand there with full pride and say ‘Yup, I’m part of Cornwall’. The standard is that good.'

The Royal Cornwall Show this year has probably been one of the hottest I can remember. As a consequence the heat has probably made it one of the most difficult ones for the flower exhibitors in the flower tent, as it’s gone from being very, very hot but cool and quite comfortable in the marquee when we were setting up – to being absolutely boiling in there on the Thursday when we opened to the public and this great heaving sea of humanity swept in through the door! You could feel the temperature rise by degrees very, very quickly. Of course watering has been a main problem for all exhibitors, both with their displays in the marquee and with their stock, a lot of which have to be stored outside the marquees where there’s no protection from the weather at all, with unrelenting heat pouring down on them.

The Royal Cornwall Show site is not the most protected of sites at the best of times, but it was like a dust storm out there on Friday with very, very strong wind. In fact, we were in the marquee, watching the canvas moving, and we were all saying thank heavens we’ve all got one of these steel marquees and not one of those all-fashioned ones, because at least the stanchions were nice and rigid and weren’t going anywhere. But I know several people who lost their tents on Friday night at the campsite – it was very, very windy. And of course it just sucks the life out of the plants that are outside. A couple of exhibitors had purchased plants – big trees – from us to use on their stands and during the show the plants were looking in very sorry condition. By Saturday morning they really had suffered badly, including in fact in one of the gardens with which we were involved outside the marquee – the BBC ‘A Garden of Cornwall’ winning garden which had been designed by Louise Todd. Her prize was to have the garden reconstructed at the Royal Cornwall Show (and at Hampton Court). Of course, it was all outdoors and the trees were really struggling. At one point it must have looked really rather amusing: I stood there desperately trying to hold on to two 15ft trees and hold them upright while Tim Hubbard from Radio Cornwall went legging back over to the Radio Cornwall marquee in order to come back with a huge ball of string so that we could try to tie them to the fencepost to prevent them blowing over and smashing everything else in the garden to pieces. And I have to say, the people outside didn’t realise they were getting very sunburnt, because of course it was quite windy and they felt a little bit cooler. I reckon there were a lot of people who were very, very sore on Saturday morning. It was just so, so hot: if you were out of the wind, the temperature soared. There were an awful lot of people resembling lobsters walking round. I have to say there was more flesh on display at the Royal Cornwall this year than was entirely decent…!!

In the floral marquee the setup was quite intense for us this year. We started building on the Monday. A couple of guys came out and we put up a wall. It was a square ‘island’ bed and we had a courtyard in one quarter and doorways through, with an English woodland garden on the other three sides. I was really, really pleased with the result but it was three very intensive days of construction – and I in fact finished at 1.30am on Thursday morning. It was absolutely freezing in that marquee by then. Having shorts on because of having worked in that heat all day, it was a bit cold by that time of night. So there were three of us sat down eating supper at 1.30am before cracking on to get everything finished. There were ourselves and Sarah Daniel from Pengelly Plant Centre – she finished even later than us. She did a ‘Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory’ display, which was very innovative. A lot of the exhibitors were working late into the night on Wednesday, to get everything just right and finished. And then, of course, it was back up at the crack of dawn again. Judging was at 6.30am on Thursday morning, so everything had to be spot-on for them. But, having got home at some unspeakable hour, I was awake at five o’clock and realised I’d forgotten to put something on the stand so I drove back out to the showground again to get everything finished as the judges were coming in. Got back to the show, went in, went back out again – then we discovered we’d got a Gold Medal this year: we were very well pleased. It’s a nice start to our new collection – we lost our other certificates of course last year in that fire we had… So it was a good start!

There was a good sprinkling of Gold Medals. I have to say, that if you picked up the flower show at the Royal Cornwall and you took it en masse to Chelsea, and you put another marquee there and called it ‘Cornwall’ it would stand alongside the Chelsea exhibits and you could stand there with full pride and say ‘Yup, I’m part of Cornwall’. The standard is that good. We do get a lot of national exhibitors come down as well, and it’s good that we get such a good representation from around the country. Even so, with that and the local nurseries and garden centres that come and display, the standard is superb. You’ve only got to look at what people are buying and listen to the oohs and ahs as they’re going around and even the from the other exhibitors going around: everybody enjoyed what they sawee. It was a fantastic show, it was good to see the standard set so high. There was a good sprinkling of golds. Trelawney Garden Centre got Large Gold for the big island class, the Bonsai display from the Mendips is always absolutely immaculate – where most people do their trimming back with secateurs, he does it with nail scissors! Bodmin Herb & Plant Nurseries got Gold as well. So, yes, a good mixtured of medals in there and a nice range across the board.

Thursday had a good turnout with the public. Friday was very, very windy but for a lot of exhibitors it was the busiest day as far as sales were concerned. But I do wonder how many people came into the flower tent just to get out of the weather! – it was so brutal outside. Friday night we always have a fun night: for the last few years I’ve always organised a barbecue for the exhibitors because we just don’t get the chance to talk to each other during the day because everyone's always so busy selling. So unofficially we sit and smoke the flower tent out on the Friday night by lighting up a barbecue in there and have a very sociable couple of hours, which is always very pleasant. Saturday is always the most wearing of the days I have to admit, because you’ve got the whole day in there trading or PR-ing, whatever you might be doing, and then there’s a sell-off in the evening.

You’ve got to get everything packed up, packed away in your lorry, all the site cleared. And what has taken anything from 24 hours to four days to set up is demolished usually within less than three hours and you see all of your hard work vanishing. It’s almost like wholesale destruction! Sell-off is not quite what it used to be: it used to be that people were buying anything and everything, but now everyone expects it all to go very, very cheaply, whereas in fact most exhibitors, if they don’t sell it at the show they can take it back to their nurseries and it goes on sale there. So there’s not really any reason for it to be greatly reduced. You still get a lot of people come round to get the cut flowers and things like that which are always nice. And I got a few pressies from my sister – a very nice Streptocarpus and a beautiful lilly. At the end of the day it is very sad to see it all taken apart. And then this morning (Monday) back up at the nurseries the lorry arrived and everything had to be unloaded. There’s an inevitable amount of damage with all the handling and everything’s waiting for a drink. The plants are all very glad to be back home again: you can almost hear the them breathing a sigh of relief ‘Oh, home, thank you!’ So we give them all a good drink and they’ve all got to be put away tomorrow: probably the worst bit of all shows is getting everything put away – that’s the bit that depresses me most!

The number of exhibitors, I would say, was probably about the same. It’s very difficult to judge. There were some new faces there which was rather nice. There was a beautiful orchid nursery there which hasn’t been there before and they were very pleased with the response that they had: they had very good sales so they’ll definitely be coming back next year. There was a Fuchsia nursery which was there for the second time and Floyd’s Climbers with a very good range of climbers there. Blackmore & Langdon’s is always there, and I think Ellis might be a new one. So there were a couple of new faces, a couple that were missing – the Alstromeria people weren’t there this year, but I’d say it felt as if there were a couple of extras in there. Ken Willcock, who’s the director of the flower tent at the show, is always very keen to encourage more ‘island’ stands so that people can walk all the way round them, so that it doesn’t feel quite so rigid. With the back-to-back stands it’s very much like an avenue up one way and back down the other but with the islands it encourages people to weave in and out a little bit more, it’s not such a one-way system and I personally think that it makes a more interesting layout in the marquee. You view them on the diagonal so there are little triangles where people can stand without feeling as if they’re going to stop all the traffic.

As for the public, there were plenty of them. Certainly on Thursday and Friday, as soon as the tent opened, people were queuing outdoors and they just swarmed in. it’s always one of the most popular attractions in the whole showground. A few years ago they used to charge a separate admission to get into the flower tent – and after considerable pressure had been brought to bear, it was agreed that the charge should be dropped. It’s increased the popularity no end for people wanting to visit the flower show. It’s hugely, hugely popular. You’ve only got to look at the popularity of places like Chelsea and Hampton Court. And a lot of the stands that are around the flower tent outside are all garden-related – landscapers, the Eden Project, various other garden layouts – they’re all down in that area.

As for practicality for average gardeners, well, it’s very different to Chelsea and Hampton Court in that you don’t get many gardens here that are laid out as ‘Oh yes, I could pick that up and take it home’-type of gardens. Here, they’re not really show gardens, they’re more showcases for plants. So, for instance, you get Dick Fulcher who has the national Agapanthus collection, he’ll have those ones all displayed on his stand. Trecanna Nursery, which does a lot of South African plants, they have all theirs done out as a scree garden with a rockery. But the emphasis is very much on the plants. The layout is very attractive but it’s on the quality and the image of each individual plant and that’s what people are really looking for at the Royal Cornwall Show. With our own stand, I like to lay ours out as a garden and to some extent I do like to be a bit purist: we did a courtyard and then we went out into a woodland-style English garden. So if we’ve got dense shade, I’m putting plants underneath that would cope with dense shade. The Cornish garden, that we did outside, was done as a coastal garden, so we tried to use plants in there that would be very much more suitable for a coastal situation: so we had Gazanias and Osteospermums for bedding plants, we had Cordylines, Trachycarpus palms, Olives, the Echiums, Pyrocanthus, Bananas – and all those sort of plants – so it was very much a coastal sort of feel. Although it was a garden that was in two parts, with a fairly open courtyard piece there was then a wall with a piece that would look more private and give the indication of a slightly more sheltered, enclosed, tropical feeling sort of garden.

So yes, I think it’s fair to say that it’s a show that does put more emphasis on the plants than on the design, but having said that, the designs are very pleasing and I think there are an awful lot of ideas that you can happily steal and take home with you.

Tracy Wilson