For the 50+ Traveler

I don’t believe in travel bucket lists. Tastes change over time. I don’t want ticking things off a list to distract from discovering wonderful, new-to-me attractions. That being said, there are places I’ve dreamed of visiting for a long time. If I had a travel bucket list, the Chelsea Flower Show would be on it.

2019 Great Pavilion floral display.
Donna Janke

Why I Wanted To Go To The Chelsea Flower Show

I first became interested in the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) Chelsea Flower Show in the 1980s. I enjoyed visiting gardens, both for their beauty and for inspiration for my own gardens. With regular trips from Canada to England to visit friends, I’d developed an affinity for things British.

The Chelsea Flower Show is the most prestigious garden show in England -- and perhaps the world. Held for five days in May on the grounds of the Royal Chelsea Hospital in London, the show’s history dates to 1862 and a single tent at the RHS garden in Kensington. The show moved to the grounds of the Royal Chelsea Hospital in 1913. Today, Chelsea attracts more than 165,000 visitors each year. Unfortunately, despite my interest, I never made it to the show for a variety of reasons

2019 Great Pavilion Floella Future display.
Donna Janke

The timing was not optimal for travel with school-age children. Other responsibilities and financial constraints took priority. Over time, my visions of visiting the Chelsea Flower Show faded. Fast-forward to fall 2018. When an opportunity arose for my husband and I, now empty-nesters, to travel to England in May 2019, my first thought was, “I can finally see the Chelsea Flower Show!”

Our friends, RHS members, arranged for the four of us to get tickets for the first day of the show. (The first two days are open only to RHS members; the last three are open to the general public.) I had to pinch myself to believe this was real. It was, but it nearly slipped through our fingers. In the months after the offer materialized, my husband developed health issues.

Medical appointments, tests, waiting for results, and treatment dominated our schedule. Discovery of a second issue led to more tests. Uncertainty reigned. Would he be well enough to make the trip? Would he qualify for affordable medical travel insurance? Two weeks before our planned departure date, we received the all-clear.

2019 Donkey Sanctuary garden.
Donna Janke

Experiencing The Chelsea Flower Show

At our friends’ house on the Sunday before the show opened, I got a taste of what I was about to see when I watched a television program about Chelsea. The BBC broadcasts a total of 12.5 hours of Chelsea Flower Show coverage throughout the week. On Monday, I watched the Queen’s visit. (She visits the show the day before it opens to RHS members and the general public. The Queen has missed only two shows since her coronation in 1953.) The television coverage made me feel part of something special.

On Tuesday, our friends, my husband, and I bypassed the shuttle buses running from Victoria Station to the hospital grounds, choosing to walk the 25 minutes to the show site. The closer we got, the more abundant and colorful shopfront floral displays became. The atmosphere grew more festive.

What I saw on television didn’t fully prepare me for the magnitude and creativity of the Chelsea Flower Show. The name is misleading. Sure, there were flowers, but there was so much more. There were fully landscaped gardens with mature trees, shrubs, and ornamental structures.

2019 Welcome to Yorkshire garden.
Donna Janke

The Show Gardens, the headliners of the show, were the largest. The Artisan Gardens were set in smaller spaces and the Space to Grow Gardens were specifically designed for small spaces. All showcased the innovation of leading designers.

As I looked at the rock formations made of burnt-oak timber in the gold medal M and G Garden, the stone arches around a patio seating area in the Wedgwood Garden, and the full-grown monkey tree in the Trailfinders’ “Undiscovered Latin America” Garden, I marveled at the planning and work necessary to install these gardens on the site in under three weeks’ time.

The Welcome to Yorkshire Garden featured a canal, a lock, a lock-keeper’s cottage, and a stone wall. Whether they contained swathes of naturalist plantings, tumbling waterfalls, moss-covered rocks, curved flower beds, or tall trees, all the gardens felt well established.

2019 M&G Garden.
Donna Janke

Inside the Great Pavilion, a 2.9 acre tent large enough to park 500 London buses, I found dazzling and fragrant displays of colorful blooms from some of Britain’s best nurseries. There were floral arrangements, artistic designs, and arrays of flower types that included gladiolas, roses, lilies, daffodils, lupins, mums, and more. Of course, less than a week after the show ended, the tall obelisk war monument in the center of the tent would once again be surrounded by a field of grass.

The Chelsea Flower Show runs from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. with three timed entry points throughout the day. In the several hours from our entry at 3:30 p.m. to closing, I saw most of the gardens and the displays in the Great Pavilion. I bypassed the many artisan and trader booths. Glances at their wares revealed lovely and unique items, but I didn’t want to take time away from seeing the gardens. I also didn’t have room in my suitcase to take anything home.

2019 Wedgwood garden.
Donna Janke

Quintessentially British

After we’d seen the first few gardens, we stopped at one of the refreshment stands for a Pimm’s. My friend said this is part of the tradition. Pimm’s is a gin-based, fruit-flavored spirit often mixed with lemon or lime soda and served with mint leaves and cucumber, orange, and strawberry slices. It is a British summer classic.

In the days following the show, I caught bits of the continuing BBC coverage. What I saw enhanced my appreciation and evoked a satisfied “I was there” feeling. Before arriving in England, I’d wondered if I’d be disappointed after waiting so many years to see the flower show, or if I’d be less interested now that downsizing had reduced my own garden space. I needn’t have been concerned. I was blown away.

On its website, the RHS calls the Chelsea Flower Show “glamorous and quintessentially British” and “a truly unique and unforgettable day out.” I am delighted I was able to experience this unforgettable British event. I’d love to do it again.

Feeling floral fever? These are the most beautiful botanical gardens in the U.S. -- and, for something different, the most beautiful succulent gardens around the world (Surprise: One is just a few hours north of London!).