Chelsea Flower Show: A Yorkshire dale in the city

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Mark Gregory is a familiar face at the Chelsea Flower Show and this time he’s back with with a special design for Welcome to Yorkshire’s garden. Louise Curley talked to him.

Since 1913 the grounds of the Royal Hospital Chelsea, London have been transformed every May into a plant paradise. The Royal Horticultural Society Chelsea Flower Show, the pinnacle of the gardening calendar, is now the world’s best known and most prestigious flower show – the gardening equivalent of London Fashion Week – where glitz and glamour, royalty and celebrity meet the very best in the world of horticulture. And for one Yorkshireman, this small patch of London is like a second home.

This will be landscape designer Mark Gregory’s 30th consecutive year at the Chelsea show, and over those three decades he’s helped to create 97 gardens, 35 of which have been gold medal winners, with three personal gold medals for gardens he designed himself for the Children’s Society.

To mark his 30th year at the show Gregory is going back to his Yorkshire roots with a garden design for Welcome to Yorkshire, the body which champions tourism in the county. Gregory grew up in West Cowick near Selby and studied horticulture at Askham Bryan College outside York.

This was followed by a year’s placement at the RHS’s flagship garden at Wisley in Surrey. “I think I was destined for a career in horticulture,” explains Gregory. “Both my grandparents were in commercial market gardening and my father is an ultra-passionate gardener. He went into building and bricklaying but was frustrated and would practice horticulture when he could. So I grew up with bricks and mortar and talk of plants and growing. Landscaping seemed the logical route.”

Gregory is now the managing director of Surrey-based landscaping company Landform Consultants and over the years has worked with some of the world’s best garden designers, but this will be the first time in eight years that Gregory has taken on the roles of both designer and builder.

Gregory hopes to bring a slice of Wensleydale to London with his design, which will showcase the beautiful countryside, the rich history and tradition of the area and artisan food production. “A garden at Chelsea needs a purpose, it needs to belong to a person or a family for me to be able to develop the idea. It needs to be functional and believable. Welcome to Yorkshire forwarded a briefing sheet as to what the garden had to do and one of the thoughts was celebrating food in the county and its rich diversity, so I picked Wensleydale, as the cheese is world famous.

“I envisaged an artisan cottage industry set in a bothy and built a story around this building as part of a larger landscape – an extension to a small farm if you like.”

“I miss the honesty of Yorkshire people and their lives and the grittiness. I miss the openness of the countryside and the skies too. I’m immensely proud of my roots and heritage, so I want to capture the mood and soul of the Dales. I want people to look and within 30 seconds have the garden in its place, to recognise what they are looking at. I want to capture lots of ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’, something that has been lacking in my opinion over the last decade or so. It would be fantastic if the garden made people say, ‘We must go back to Yorkshire, it’s been a while.’ ”

The design has three distinct areas: a bothy garden packed full of cottage garden favourites, such as lupins and roses, with a small allotment area devoted to growing fruit and vegetables; a fast-flowing beck will tumble under a York stone bridge, which will connect the bothy and its garden with a meadow of wildflowers and boundaries of native hedges, nettles and brambles; and behind the bothy will be a patch of woodland planted with familiar trees like birch, rowan, hazel and alder, where in the dappled shade ferns, grasses and wild strawberries will be planted.

Gregory hopes to show through his choice of plants that it’s possible for gardeners to be inspired by nature. “One of the things I want to play with is using both cultivated and wild plants, so there’ll be cultivated white foxgloves and the purple-leaved cow parsley in the cottage garden, with the juxtaposition of the wild pink foxgloves and the hedgerow cow parsley in the wilder areas.”

Keeping with the Yorkshire theme, the walls will be crafted by expert dry stone waller Richard Clegg from Holmfirth using stone gathered from the Bolton Estate in Wensleydale. After the show the stone will be returned and used to rebuild tumbledown walls on the estate. “I look for authenticity and feel when choosing the stone we’ll use. The provenance is an essential part of the story and the character of the stone imparts the feel,” says Clegg.

Gregory is involved with every stage of the design and build process. In March, with remnants of snow from the ‘Beast from the East’ still on the ground, he joined Clegg on a recce to seek out the right stones. “We decided that day that we would use the same dry stone walling stone to build the bothy frontage. Combined with the sandstone quoins and sills we thought this stone would deliver the atmosphere we’re looking to create 
and enhance the visual scale of the building,” explains Clegg.

Clegg himself is becoming a Chelsea regular – this year’s garden will be the fifth design he’s worked on at the show for Welcome to Yorkshire. It’s also something of a family affair as he’ll be joined by his eldest son Lewyn and his youngest son Eryn along with the other member of his 
team, Victor McComish. “It will take about six 
days to build the bothy. Mark’s team will build the inner walls from block work and we will follow 
on with the stone and hopefully create a little magic.”

The meadow also has its roots in Yorkshire where it’s made by specialist growers Lindum Turf on felt mats made from recycled British textiles.

“We’ve worked with Mark to create a bespoke mixture for the Welcome to Yorkshire garden this year – all will be revealed in May. We’re very excited to see it in situ,” explains Laura Bramley.

“The mats are sown with seeds months in advance so they are mature enough for the show.

“We grow the wildflower mats outdoors initially then bring them inside where we can then give them the special care and attention they need. Shortly before the show we take them back outdoors to toughen up. 
The flowering turf is delivered flat and it’s transferred from Yorkshire to London without a leaf or flower out of place.”

Working with wildflowers can be trickier than cultivated garden plants, particularly when it comes to getting them to flower on time for a show. “It is a tall order every year to achieve what we do for all of our clients at Chelsea, although over the years of working for the Chelsea Flower Show we have never failed to deliver. We have it down to a fine art!” says Bramley.

For Mark the thrill of working at Chelsea hasn’t worn off. “It’s all about being surrounded by the very best. We break ground on May 1 when it’s foot to the floor. I aim to finish on the 18th so we’re ready for assessment on 19th, with judging on 20th.

“There’s the adrenalin rush that comes with the feeling of the massive achievement and relief at getting over the finishing line. It’s like building a stage set and putting on the first night all in a couple of weeks… it’s madness! The fear of failing is slightly overwhelming, but the teams I have around me are brilliant. You either love it or are terrified by it. It’s not for everybody.

“Sadly for me I’m hooked by it all… an adrenaline junkie,” he says with a smile.