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A vase? You must be kidding

31 July 2015

Flower festivals have become big business, attracting visitors and funds. Jemima Thackray plots their growth

Consider the lilies: the nave of Chichester Cathedral

Consider the lilies: the nave of Chichester Cathedral

THE organiser of the first-ever church flower festival could hardly have imagined what a phenomenon it would become. Not only is the flower festival a crucial fund-raising activity for parish churches, but it has burgeoned into the floral extravaganzas that now take over cathedrals, demand two years of planning, and bring in crowds of up to 30,000 visitors, and sums of up to £85,000.

The PR manager for Salisbury Cathedral, Marie Thomas, shared a common misconception of flower festivals: “I joined the cathedral staff last year, and when they said ‘flower festival’, I thought we were talking about bouquets in vases.

“Actually, it’s monumental — it’s a whole other contemporary art form. Their ambitions this year are quite terrifying.”

Lincoln Cathedral’s festival in 2012 was timed to coincide with the London Olympics. The displays reflected the Ancient Greek origins of the Games: visitors were confronted with a huge charioteer, sculpted out of paper and flowers, riding up the nave.

For Winchester Cathedral’s event in June this year, “Cascades”, the Dutch artistic director Hans Haverkamp conceived of the 15th-century ornate stone screen behind the high altar as “an installation that embodies the concept of cascades, [with] a stylised impression of water running down made from threads, organza, ribbons, glass, and moth orchids”.

At Salisbury Cathedral’s forthcoming “Magna Flora”, in September, there will be 25 12-foot-high panels depicting the 25 barons of Magna Carta. The cathedral’s director of flowers, Michael Bowyer, says that “it will be the culmination of our celebrations of 800 years since Magna Carta, [one copy of] which is displayed here at the cathedral.”


MANY festival themes are tied in with current cultural events, either national — Exeter Cathedral’s 2012 show was created around the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee — or with a local focus, such as the festival currently being planned for Blackburn Cathedral in 2016, which is timed to coincide with the completion of the new city-centre development.

“Our theme is ‘Renaissance’,’’ one of the organisers, Karen Brook, says, “to reflect the rebirth and regeneration of Blackburn. Our town has really embraced this, and is working with us. For example, the local Business Improvement District is really on board, and is sponsoring all our marketing.”

Similarly, Chichester Cathedral — planning its 11th festival next year — has opted for a local focus in its theme of “The Artist’s Palette”. Designs will reflect not only the cathedral’s celebrated 20th-century artwork (including the Chagall window, the Piper tapestry, and the Sutherland painting), but also the work of Sussex artists.

Certainly, the celebration of regional creativity is a priority for flower-festival committees, not least because they depend on the valiant efforts of local flower-arranging enthusiasts — mostly from the parish churches, or members of National Association of Flower Arrangement Societies branches.

As Sylvia Bush, the vice-chair of Exeter’s committee, explains: “We wrote to every club and church, inviting them along to meetings. We had over 300 volunteers come from across Devon, as well as 70 of our own, all sitting in the choir stalls. Our creative director would show us pictures of her designs, and the volunteers would carry them out to the letter.

“Then, during the festival itself, they would arrive at 7.30 every morning to water the flowers, then spend the evenings pruning the dying ones. It’s just so logistically complicated — it took over our lives, actually.”


ALL the cathedral festivals appoint creative directors (or several, working in a team), who are usually professional flower designers, and often highly decorated with Chelsea Flower Show prizes. But there is some variance in how much interpretative freedom the volunteers are given. Salisbury Cathedral, Mr Bowyer says, is unique in giving the volunteers three options: “They can design their own exhibit with a little bit of oversight; they can do it collaboratively; so we give them some help; or they can have guidance to the point of simply executing the designs we provide.

“The Mothers’ Union, for example, are using a chapel space to celebrate important dates for women: the first female MP, when women got the vote, the first female bishop. We have also invited local colleges to take part, and one of them has come up with its own design, based on a clause in the Magna Carta about widows not being forced to remarry.”

This collaborative approach is indicative of what many of the organisers describe as the “outward focus” of flower festivals. The media officer at Winchester Cathedral, Simon Barwood, says: “Cathedrals are like beacons — they are meant to be a source of inspiration. But they should also exist to draw people together and involve them. This is what the festival achieves.”

This “drawing together” can be seen in the friendships that blossom between volunteers, but also in the links forged between the different church congregations and denominations. Mrs Bush, at Exeter Cathedral, describes how “we had lots of bespoke pieces made for us; so, at the end of the festival, we gave them on permanent loan to local parish churches.”

In the same spirit of collaboration, the organising team from Blackburn have just spent three days at the recent “Cascades” event in Winchester. “Our budget is minuscule compared with some of these cathedrals,” Mrs Brook says; “so when we saw the mechanics [the structural parts that hold the displays together] going into a skip at the end, we said: ‘If we can transport them, can we have them?’

“So we’ve bought a shipping container, and now we’re storing all the cast-offs in there. We must be quite unique in our recycling efforts.”


OF COURSE, the greatest expression of this “outward focus” is in the sheer number of visitors. The fact that Exeter Cathedral attracts nearly 30,000 people means that its festival is regarded as much more than a fund-raising exercise: it is an opportunity for ministry.

“The designer spent a lot of time just sitting and contemplating in the cathedral. She wanted to reflect the beauty of God and his creation,” Mrs Bush says. “People said they had a wonderful sense of peace sitting among the flowers.

“Furthermore, in one of the designs, near the altar, we deliberately left lots of empty spaces, allowing people to come and plant a flower in memory of a loved one. They could also write the name in a memory book, which was placed on the altar at the final service. We had queues of people for that.”

Ms Brooks, who is in the process of planning the first festival in Blackburn, is also keen to prioritise mission: “For us, it’s definitely part of the cathedral’s outreach — a chance to open the doors and look outside. Who knows what people will find when they come in? And we also hope to have someone on hand — perhaps a chaplain — who will meet people’s spiritual needs, too, if they seek it.”

At the festival at Durham Cathedral in 2013, even the choice of theme demonstrated the building’s primary function as a place of worship. As Ruth Robson, the cathedral’s Head of Events, says: “At a basic level, the festival brought a lot of people into the cathedral who wouldn’t usually come in, who then encountered the building in a new way.

“It was so epic and aesthetically stunning that it was definitely thought-provoking and prompting of a spiritual response for some.

“But also our theme, ‘Jewels of the North’, was intended to tie in with the display in Durham at that time of the Lindisfarne Gospels, which were on loan from the British Library. We had floral representations of the Gospels literally hanging from the ceiling. So it was clear that the driving force behind the whole thing was a celebration of the north-east’s strong Christian heritage.

“Visitors also got to see that the cathedral is a living and working church,” Ms Robson continued, “because our normal pattern of services continued throughout. But this of course posed its own challenges, in how to maintain the life of the church at the same time as hosting such a huge event — it takes over the whole of the cathedral, not just in a physical way.”


THE extent to which the normal running of the cathedral continues is imprinted on one organiser’s memory: “I’ve been involved in the festival for 30 years now, and I’ve seen a couple of funerals happen midway through the festival,” Jenny Whitton, of Lincoln Cathedral, says. “I even remember a wedding in amongst all the blooms — although I think that was perhaps a mishap with the diary.”

The sheer quantity of work and disruption explains why no cathedrals manage the feat every year. Winchester and Chichester are biennial, but most leave a gap of several years or more between events. “People are constantly asking when the next one will be,” Mrs Bush says. “I say I haven’t got over the last one yet! But it is wonderful, and the feedback is always so positive — I received so many lovely letters and cards.”

Judging from visitor numbers, there is still a very healthy appetite for flower festivals, but not just as spectators. Although some organisers report that the majority of their volunteers are older women, in places such as Salisbury Mr Bowyer finds it “encouraging to see all sorts of age groups getting involved, including some teenagers.

“We have even made it possible for working people to take part in designing, by using dried and artificial displays, and then hoisting them 50ft in the air.”


MUCH thought and effort is also put into widening the appeal of the festivals for those who may not be flower-lovers: craft markets, classical-music concerts, photography mornings, workshops, demonstrations, and pop-up cafés are organised alongside.

And the occasional celebrity endorsement also draws the crowds: the actor Hugh Bonneville, for example, opened Winchester’s recent event; Tim Wonnacott, the presenter of Bargain Hunt, is patron of Chichester’s upcoming show; and the journalist Kate Adie was the patron of the festival at Durham in 2013.

Some organising committees, however, have moved away from these supplementary events. As Mrs Whitton, at Lincoln Cathedral, explains: “We decided not to have the extra stalls and workshops last year. We tried it once, but we found it compromised the space when what people came for were the flowers.

“Also, we don’t want to make it too much of a salesy affair. People have already paid a reasonable sum to come in — I think it was £8 last time — and probably bought a programme, too, and you have to be mindful of people’s resources and pitch it carefully.”

There seems to be a growing confidence, then, that the art of flower-arranging is starting to speak for itself. “Contemporary flower design has evolved; so it is now about creating serious works of art,” Ms Robson, at Durham Cathedral, says. “So, as long as it continues to grow and reflect the trends of the day, it has a lot of mileage in it yet.”

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