This summer, in halls and marquees across the land, gardeners will gather for one of the most anticipated events in the community calendar: the village flower show. Ursula Buchan explains its enduring appeal
In the late 1980s, I was involved in the making of two series of programmes for Channel 4, entitled Village Show. We visited flower shows all over the kingdom, including one close to where I lived. I remember the director saying to me, with a melancholy shake of the head, that he didn’t suppose that the particular village show we were filming – where I had recently been invited to judge the vegetable, flower and fruit classes – would survive more than another five years. I am pleased to say that he was wrong, and that in July I shall be judging at this still-popular show for the 35th consecutive year.
Village flower shows date back to the 19th century and have been under pressure from appealing distractions almost from their inception. Some have foundered at times and had to be revived, but a surprising number have survived, even if in adapted form – and that despite the siren calls of the television and the foreign summer holiday. In the early years, the cash prizes were a welcome addition to pitiful rural incomes, and a red rosette proved to manual labourers that they could compete successfully with their neighbours and even their ‘betters’: the professional gardeners at the Big House. Flower shows have always bred a respectable competitiveness, which only occasionally spills over into outright cheating.
Ever since I trained to be a gardener, I have been drawn to these competitions, exhibiting home-grown produce in my own village show (revived 60 years ago) and judging in others nearby. I know how difficult it is to produce good-quality entries on the day, even when you know exactly what the judges consider ‘meritorious’ – in the traditional language in which flower show schedules are couched. I also know that my neighbours indulge in some enjoyably harmless schadenfreude when I fail to win first prize in a class. I am damned if I do and damned if I don’t, but that matters not a whit to me.
I love the mixture of painstaking orderliness and riotous colour that greets me when I enter a village hall or marquee in time for judging. Every jam jar is polished, every gladiolus spike ramrod straight in its vase. The collections of six vegetables are laid out on black velvet cloth, which accentuates the bright whiteness of fat leeks, their roots combed straight with knitting needles. ‘Pure excellences that enclose a recession of skills’ is how Philip Larkin described the cookery and horticultural exhibits in his 1973 poem Show Saturday.
Even small flower shows are usually judged according to the rules laid down by the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS). These are precise and, seemingly, immutable, although the RHS’ The Horticultural Show Handbook is occasionally revised to reflect changes in practice and tastes. We vegetable judges know the point system used in the Handbook off by heart.
Village flower shows are especially good for children. My daughter, when aged eight, won a cup for the most points in the children’s classes in a local show and, as an adult, is the best cook I know. That shiny cup gave her the confidence to experiment and me the patience to keep quiet when I walked across a kitchen floor scrunchy with spilled sugar. Her ‘model garden on a tray’ was a thing of beauty, with Cosmos buds for cabbages and a compact mirror for the pond.
Flower shows, like all traditional activities, have had to change to ensure continued success. There is more emphasis these days on photography and art, and there are fewer three-foot-long carrots, since the former can be sorted out the night before the show, while the latter must be carefully grown and nurtured in an upright drainpipe all summer. The lingering malignity of COVID-19 has hindered flower shows as badly as it has other communal activities, but most have somehow got through.
For a hundred years or more, villagers will have told their friends, with an airy wave of the hand, that they only exhibited the fruits of their labours “to support the show”. They can say what they like as long as they go on entering the classes and encouraging others, especially youngsters, to do so as well. For where will you find an annual event that is less world-weary or materialist, or that requires more noble effort for success? Even cynical Philip Larkin was not immune to its charm and community spirit – the last line of Show Saturday reads: ‘Let it always be there.’