Nan Quick’s Travel Diary

The Irish Sky Garden at the Chelsea Flower Show.
May 19th-June 16th, 2011 Travel Diary
by Nan Quick


I’d been hankering for a serious trip to refuel my imagination for quite a while, and timing a journey so I could attend both London’s Chelsea Flower Show and Venice’s Biennale made sense. Add to that my need for a visit with dear friends in England and Venice, and my desire to deepen my explorations of Rome and Tivoli; being away for a month began to seem rational instead of extravagant.

England—the First Chapter: London
St. Paul’s Cathedral is pristine, after a 15-year restoration
London. May 21st. I arrived at Heathrow, considerably rumpled, but in good humor. Flying from Boston to London in past years didn’t seem daunting. But now, traveling from Oregon to San Francisco, and then from San Francisco to Heathrow, involves serious air time. But what would likely have been a miserable, long flight to England--even in Virgin Atlantic’s Business Class--was made bearable and even entertaining by my good fortune of being seated next to a stranger named Tom Watson, a wryly funny young Brit who travels the Globe as a pharmaceutical company rep. Not only did he keep me smiling, but toward journey’s end, he mentioned his sister had recently written a book, the title of which I politely jotted in my notebook. Several days later, browsing in the Waterstone’s near Sloane Square and wanting to support a first-time author, I bought a copy of Christie Watson’s Tiny Sunbirds Far Away, which turned out to be an astoundingly moving and original coming-of-age story about a girl in Lagos. Read this book! Moral? Take pains to get acquainted with your seat mate on your next flight. You might be enriched in unexpected ways.
On this trip, I returned to the comfortable and stylish Sloane Square Hotel, which has begun to feel like home away from home. Here’s my room on the fourth floor, and the 7AM view outside: the Queen’s chocolate horses are being given their morning exercise.
London, May 22nd. Now, back to that topic of seat mates. On Sunday in Sloane Square, I zipped around the corner to attend a service at the Parish Church of the Holy Trinity (www.holytrinitysloanesquare.co.uk) because I adore all that High Anglican incense and choral work, along with the eminently sensible sermons of the Rector, the Reverend Rob Gillion. Ten minutes into the sung Eucharist, a woman plopped into the pew behind me and began to noisily count the contents of her change purse. She was accompanied by a perfectly behaved little dog, who sat next to her and seemed to pay close attention to the Rector. Just as the woman’s coin-jangling stopped, she thrust something large into the empty spot next to me. SO, my seat mate for the remainder of the service was her three-foot tall, stuffed kangaroo toy ... you can’t make these things up! The English can be a strange but endearing lot.

That afternoon, rain lifting, I visited one of my favorite places, the Chelsea Physic Garden, on Swan Walk, by the Chelsea Embankment. London’s oldest botanic garden, founded in 1673, offers an almost secret refuge from the hyperactive city that surrounds it. And the vegetarian fare served in their Café is superb (www.chelseaphysicgarden.co.uk).
London, May 23rd & 24th. Art-Days!

First: The Cult of Beauty show at the V&A (www.vam.ac.uk), followed by hours of examining the rest of the amazing stash on V&A’s many floors. Throw in lunch at the Morris Rooms, and you’ve got a perfect visit.
Second: Tate Britain (www.tate.org.uk/britain), where I revisited John Singer Sargent’s exquisite Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose.
Third: A stroll to see Gee Burnet, at Philip Treacy’s (www.philiptreacy.co.uk) Elizabeth Street shop. Gee is Treacy’s sales manager, client charmer, gate keeper, and media tamer ... an impressive lady, in my humble opinion. I had to ask Gee about the headpiece that Princess Beatrice wore to the recent royal wedding, because never has a mere hat received such worldwide publicity.

Gee told me that Beatrice is a relaxed and confident young woman, who, before the wedding, simply told Mr. Treacy what color her dress would be, and gave him license to exercise his imagination. What was created for Beatrice was neither hat nor fascinator, but a wearable piece of art, and all concerned were pleased beyond pleased that the auction of the headpiece raised over $130,000 for charity.
Gee Burnet, at Philip Treacy.
London, May 25th. The MAIN EVENT! I went with Anne and David Guy to the spectacle that is the Chelsea Flower Show.

Two years ago I exhibited the garden furniture I design at the Show, and reported about that experience for NYSD. The Royal Horticultural Society show managers invited me back in 2010 and for this year, but I’m waiting until the global economy recovers before reshipping my heavy container of wrought iron and steel goods a third of the way around the Earth. Seeing the Show now as a mere spectator was a change because, not being witness to the pre-show build-up madness, I could almost forget that every leaf and blossom and stone in the Show had been trucked in, and would soon be trucked out again.

The mob of Wednesday’s ticket holders were all members of the RHS, and were thus amazingly well-behaved. Similar crowds in America would include sharp elbows, muttered curses, and much fuss, but during our 7-1/2 hour long visit to the Show, I was un-jostled, un-sworn-at, and totally impressed by the good manners of our British cousins who garden.
A sea of people under the arching trees of Eastern Avenue, on the Royal Hospital Grounds.
Nan, Anne, and David.
Compared with the 2009 Show, the horticultural and floral design displays inside the Great Pavilion seemed less impressive, but the Show Gardens this year were a mix of stunning and puzzling, which provided great entertainment value; nothing like audacity or controversy to juice up an audience.

Why wait to tell you about the Best? Here: The over-the-top Irish Sky Garden, which combined Diarmuid Gavin’s impeccable plantsmanship with a crane-supported joyride on a purple eye-in-the-sky. I want one like this at home ... every spectator wanted one too. After multiple visits to the Sky Garden, I decided I wouldn’t have been crazy if I’d flown my 11,200 miles (round-trip) to see it, and only it.
And equally impressive, but without the heavy machinery? The quiet elegance, of the Laurent-Perrier Garden by Luciano Giubbilei, which, from every angle, and in the day’s changing light, kept offering new surprises and charms. I could live in a garden like that.
The Principality of Monaco’s Monaco Garden was a crowd favorite, and I admired many aspects of designer Sarah Eberle’s creation, but the chrome-plated swimming pool banisters at the front of the display made me think of an institutional physical therapy facility instead of a Mediterranean paradise.
The Tourism Malaysia Garden, David Cubero and James Wong’s tapestry of green-upon-green, didn’t seem to attract the large crowds of the flashier Show Gardens, but my garden designer friend Anne Guy (www.anneguygardendesigns.co.uk) and I agreed that the design, inspired by jungle streams and the traditional architecture of the Malaysian archipelago, was beautiful and enormously engaging.
The Daily Telegraph Garden, a sunken space of reclaimed Cotswold stone and concrete columns, offset by a golden stucco wall, was voted People’s
Favorite at the Show, but I found it far less interesting than many other displays.
And the tallest-ever garden at the Show must be mentioned. The B&Q Garden, demonstrating that we should be planting food wherever we’re able, was an ingenious isplay of how cities might feed themselves by putting every square inch of their space—horizontal and vertical—to gardening use.
The Chelsea Flower Show’s less flashy gardens, the Artisan entries, are tucked away at the edge of the Ranelagh Gardens, against a wooded backdrop, and could easily be missed. This year’s stellar installation in the Artisan area was designer Jihae Hwang’s Hae-woo-so (Emptying One’s Mind), which at first glance seemed like a very bad pun, because the tiny garden was planted around a traditional Korean outhouse; certainly the first time a toilet has been the centerpiece of any Chelsea display!

But the magic of the garden charmed the RHS judges, along with the spectators. Every inch of the garden seemed to be ancient and untouched: moss-covered stonework, wood and plants. Hwang’s tour de force was a reminder that the most adept gardeners are often those whose handiwork is the least obvious.
Of other small entries at the Show, in the Urban Garden category, Olivia Kirk’s
The Power of Nature presented a compact, enticing setting of stone and water. New Yorkers will be pleased to see that her benches are similar to those on the High Line: good ideas such are these should be used, far and wide.
But, to balance the well-made gardens at the Show, there were the inevitable misconceived displays, which provoked lively discussions among the visitors. Here are the gardens that caused the most raised eyebrows among the people I encountered:

The British Heart Foundation Garden,
meant to demonstrate the power of organ that pumps within us, managed to be both unsightly and ghoulish; its red concrete stepping stones looked like nothing so much as pulpy tissue, and the red metal arches menaced the greenery around them.
The Australian Garden, presented by the Royal Botanic Gardens of Melbourne, offered a weird combination of elements, which were meant to represent Australia’s topography. But the white splotches, red sand, and turquoise water feature were more like a cartoon than a garden.
Finally: a grab-bag of Flower Show images from the outdoor gardens ...
... and from the displays in the Great Pavilion.
Next: England--the Second Chapter. Headed north with Anne and David to enjoy historic gardens in the Cotswolds and the Midlands. Then, Macbeth in the renovated Royal Shakespeare Company theatre at Stratford-on-Avon. Later: Bath’s streets as Jane Austen knew them, and Oxford’s spires and Basil Blackwell’s books.

Followed by Italy. Five days in Venice: Press Day at Biennale (with loads of
pictures of the actually-worth-seeing art in the Arsenale section of Biennale, along with the national pavilions in the Giardini that I admired). And photos of the more reliable treasures of the City: Accademia, Guidecca, Dorsoduro, and the quiet alleys of Castello. Plus a very comfortable stay at the venerable Bauer Hotel, where pinch-me views are the norm. And later: the phantasmagoric mountainside gardens at Tivoli’s Villa d’Este; and a week’s worth of the wonders of Rome.

Concluding with: a visit to the London home of Samuel Johnson and a rumination about the great man’s finances.