Another year, another Chelsea Flower Show. Another year, in other words, of mind-numbing TV coverage, of not actually being able to see any of the show gardens for the crowds, of getting plastered on plastic cups of tepid Pimm’s, of overpriced knick-knacks and clots of gormless punters trying to catch a glimpse of a semi-celebrity being interviewed for the daytime shows.
As far as I’m concerned, Chelsea stopped being about gardens or gardening in, gosh, round about 1952. At long last, there is some relief: the first Chelsea Fringe festival, which launches on 19 May and is the brainchild of Tim Richardson, an author and journalist with an engagingly irreverent take on the gardening world.
“The idea came to me during last year’s show,” says Tim, an ex-actor and comedian and a gardening columnist on the Daily Telegraph. “I was lying in the bath when it suddenly struck me that what Chelsea needed was the equivalent of the Edinburgh Fringe. The idea just developed from there.”
Chelsea Fringe, which is run entirely by volunteers, leaps the fence around the all-too-trad confines of the Flower Show, with a refreshingly diverse range of events and ‘meanwhile spaces’ scattered right across London. These range from a river of fruit trees along Chiswick High Street in the west to the Canning Town Caravanserai in the east.
The Fringe features some intriguing installations. I love the sound of the Garden of Disorientation, a pop-up garden inside a former slaughterhouse in Clerkenwell, also featuring an evening bar. It sounds faintly disturbing, but makes a nice change from the pretty-pretty cottage gardens you get in most gardening magazines.
An imaginative project with an alcoholic theme, the Bicycling Beer Garden, will be touring London over the weekend of 19-20 May. Putative pedaller Dan Benson says, “Our aim is to add some light-heartedness and jollity to the event, making new connections with other Fringers as we go.” Catch him if you can. Or, indeed, for a can.
East London happenings
Failing that, one of the most appealing aspects of the Chelsea Fringe is its willingness to celebrate the grittier aspects of London life, in marked contrast to the fantasy deluxification that makes the Flower Show such a weirdly surreal experience.
The Canning Town Caravanerai is a good example. A derelict brownfield site in one of London’s most deprived boroughs is going to be transformed with the help of architects, artists and the local community, with everything from a garden of mirrors to a field of sunflowers being planned to help detoxify the polluted soil beneath.
Also in east London, Shoreditch may be one of the hip-and-happening hubs of art-student bohemia, but it’s also about as gritty as it gets. So Daniel Shea’s imaginative transformation of St Leonard’s Church will add a welcome splash of colour to what can be a rather grey and grim part of the city. The Shoreditch church features in Oranges and Lemons, the famous nursery rhyme, and Shea’s plan is to wrap its columns in real oranges and lemons. He is also working with local schoolchildren and homeless people to create a new garden for the church.
As the organisers say, “Our open-access principle means that just about anything goes – as long as it’s interesting and on the subject of gardens, flowers, veg-growing or landscape.” If only the Chelsea Flower Show was as welcoming.
The Chelsea Fringe runs from 19 May to 10 June at locations across London