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A Garden in the Houses of Parliament

In the August Blog I wrote about an award winning garden we put up at Gardener’s World Live at the Birmingham NEC, in conjunction with Visit Isle of Wight Ltd, the destination management company who promote the island to the world.  At the end of that Blog I said we would never make another one of these gardens.  This is the story of that garden.

The first suggestion of another garden installation came during the healing period following the NEC.  Backs were mending, sleep deficits refilling and invoices fluttering. Fresh in my mind was the step we had made taken towards a Chelsea gold as I drove to the VIW offices at Osborne to meet David Thornton, Liz Walker and the team.  What I heard there forced my hand to make a new garden that would fulfil the requirement from David that it should “knock the socks” off a show they had put on last year…in the Palace of Westminster.  Let’s make a garden with giant palm trees and pool of Giant Waterlilies. Indoors. Upstairs.

Time was certainly against us, less than five weeks, so I ordered six Washingtonia robusta from Italy before the end of the day.  They would arrive the day before the event. I had a plan already brewing of how to transport the Giant Waterlily pads.  Over a hundred years ago, Hooker, Director of Kew, sent Giant Waterlily leaves from London to Osborne; we were going to do the same in reverse!  Hooker used the new railway connecting London to Portsmouth, my plan was to turn our vehicle into a giant pizza delivery van, carrying trays of Waterlily leaves instead of pizzas.  Obviously palms and pizzas alone do not a garden make, so we would also need to be taking up other VBG plants as well as purchasing plants from the wholesale markets on the day.

These were not the only strange things going to London for the show.  As an event to promote the Isle of Wight to a very select audience of MPs and VIPs we would be transforming the Jubilee Room, but in the adjacent room would be a vast array of our brilliant island foods and drinks put together by David Brooks from Solent, including cocktails, seafood, ice-cream, garlic, beer at a bar, cream teas….you get the picture.  There were also tables and chairs, acres of astroturf, Isle of Wight Passports, multitudinous nick-nacks, a guitar and a bicycle.

You may have noticed my brief and glib reference earlier to this all being upstairs. A reconnaissance visit a week before the event revealed a series of wide stone stairs that would need to be negotiated and a short corridor to the room the garden would be in.  The room itself had chandeliers and wallpaper by Pugin with a pricetag to make the eyes water and insurance companies wince.  We would have to be very careful.  And we also hired four hands to help us with the moving of our, as yet, unseen palms.  The day loomed, and after a nervy period of not being able to find enough hire vans for our capacious and curious loads, Jason and I found ourselves in North London looking at the second biggest potted Washingtonias I’ve ever seen.  We loaded them into our lorry using a forklift and doubted that six of us would be able to lift them off the ground, let alone up a flight of stairs.  It began to rain.

Security at the Houses of Parliament was considered light on the day, taking only a couple of hours to have the lorries checked inside and out whilst being questioned by heavily armed police.  Once inside, and having wrought the displeasure of every known security person and device known to man simply by parking in the wrong spot, repeatedly, we entered the Great Hall of Westminster to find we would need to move our palms up a much smaller, tighter flight of twisting steps, these being considerably further away.  Once up these steps they would then need to be dragged through a very long room resembling one in a stately home, complete with its very own chandeliers and Pugin paper.  None of which could happen before 9pm as there was already a function underway in our room.  The next four hours were rather dark.  Had Jason Melia not been there to help, motivate the hired hands, break his back and not just get on a train home – and he certainly threatened to do just that at the stroke of midnight – we would not have been able to put the garden in at all.  There are some things about that evening that shall remain forever secret, but we nearly, at one point, succeeded in doing to the Palace of Westminster what the entire might of the Third Reich’s Luftwaffe and Guy Fawkes’ plotting failed to do. When I bid goodnight to a sober, hungry, stone faced Jason in the early hours, with all of our trappings in place, I was mightily grateful it was all over.

The success of the following day, when Dean and Alex triumphantly brought in the Giant Waterlily leaves and the invited guests were astounded by the garden and enthralled with all the good the Island has to offer, could be measured in many ways.  It has been estimated that the monetary value to promoting the island would be measured in five figures.  Media coverage was excellent.  It was widely recognised that there had never before been anything like the show we put on, MPs of all persuasion were amazed.  VIPs saw just what to island has to offer, and just what our little garden can do with a few quid and some strong backs.  The police on duty ventured timidly into our jungle, for men armed as if for war, and wanted to know where we were from with such extraordinary palms and lilies.  I’ve seen two of them here at Ventnor Botanic Garden since.

On the way home we all swore never again.  It didn’t help getting lost in Chelsea in a convoy of lorries only to find Putney Bridge closed and missing the last ferry home.  There is secret talk of doing it all again next year.  I’ve not told Jason yet.