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RHS Chelsea Flower Show to include garden from St James’s, Piccadilly

19 April 2024

Michelle Anderson

The Chelsea garden (“Imagine the world to be different”)

The Chelsea garden (“Imagine the world to be different”)

THE Royal Horticultural Society’s Chelsea Flower Show will this year include a garden from St James’s, Piccadilly, in London — the first time for many years that a church has been represented.

A landscape architect, Robert Myers, has designed the garden to reflect the Wren Project, a restoration and rejuvenation of the 17th-century church.

“We never in a million years thought we would be taking a garden to Chelsea. It feels really surprising,” the Rector of St James’s, the Revd Lucy Winkett, said this week.

The garden’s title is “Imagine the world to be different” — a fitting theme for St James’s, she says, which is known for its hospitality, advocacy of social justice, and engagement with the surrounding community.

The church’s Southwood Garden (formerly the Green Churchyard) has been a sacred public space from its beginning. It was damaged during the Second World War, and afterwards dedicated in memory of the Londoners who had lost their lives in the Blitz.

Fourteen resilient plant species — the Pioneer Plants — survived, and were documented by Kew Gardens in the 1940s. Some of these will be planted in the Chelsea garden.

“Churches are one of the key elements of urban green space,” Ms Winkett said. “In London, there are the parks, of course, but public green space that is open to everyone is really important. Quite a bit of it became inaccessible during the pandemic, when it it depended where you lived and who you were whether you had any green space to access.”

She continued: “The garden is very well-used here. We’re two minutes from Piccadilly, which is chaotic and noisy and all the things that central London is. Literally, two minutes, and there’s this really beautiful oasis where we observe people every day coming in and just having a sit and taking some time.”

Churchyard re-landscaped, post-1940

For 35 years, a shepherd’s hut in the garden has been a seven-day-a-week drop-in centre for an hour’s free counselling for anyone who needs it, from people going through homelessness to hedge-fund managers from Jermyn Street.

“It’s important that it’s outside, and not anywhere you have to ring a doorbell or make an appointment or stand in reception,” Ms Winkett said. “You can just slide in and have someone listen to you, and slide out again.

“And it’s adjacent to the church, but it’s not the church, and doesn’t require them to interact with the official Church, by which some of them might have been hurt. That’s incorporated into the show garden, too.”

The Wren Project, led by Ptolemy Dean, is a £20-million scheme to open up the whole site — building, courtyard, garden, and rectory — in a holistic approach that is to provide new pedestrian routes through the site to the south and east, to improve the connection for the public between Jermyn Street and Piccadilly. About 40,000 people a month pass through here.

New views would be opened up, and the green setting would be reinvigorated and secured for the future, Ms Winkett said.

“It’s absolutely about the people we’re serving. The physical opening up to the south and east is a signal, or metaphor, for what we are trying to do, which is to make sure we retain our outward-looking focus to the community that we serve.

“The Chelsea garden is a taste of what we hope the project will achieve, which is to amplify the heritage and make sure it’s really accessible for everyone at the same time.”

The Chelsea garden (“Imagine the world to be different”)

The show garden will also reference the new archway envisaged between Jermyn Street and Piccadilly. Some of the brickwork used in its construction will be included. The garden is sponsored by Project Giving Back, which funds good causes at Chelsea, and will be relocated after its show appearance: every element is to be replanted or reused.

The garden will also celebrate the church’s rich heritage of transformers of society, among them William Blake, Ottobah Cugoano, a prominent abolitionist, and female pioneers such as the artists Mary Beale, and Mary Delany (Diary, 10 December 2021). It was the first church to install photovoltaic panels, and the first church in central London to hold funerals and memorial services for men who had died from AIDS. Archbishop William Temple was a former Rector.

Mr Myers, a six-times gold medallist at the Chelsea Flower Show, is the designer of both the Wren Project and the show garden.

“My design explores ideas around gathering, refuge, and the importance of restorative green spaces in the city, celebrating the history, social impact, and environmental commitments of the church,” he said.

Visitors to the garden will step through the archway into what is described as “a contemplative haven”, a sanctuary for urban dwellers and city wildlife. Climate-resilient trees are a key feature of a lush, biodiverse planting scheme, inviting people to unite and nurture the traditions of “conversations under trees”.

St James’s, Piccadilly, c.1940

Ms Winkett said: “We’re taking our cue from Job, where he said, ‘Ask the animals and they will teach you.’ We want to make sure we’re taking seriously our interdependence with creation, and not our separateness from it. The conversation under a tree is different from a conversation you are having in a boardroom or a study or a vicar’s office.”

Radio 4’s Sunday Worship on 19 May, two days before the opening of the Show, is on the theme “Conversation under a tree”.

The St James’s garden is being heralded as a chance to tell the story of churchyards and urban “pocket parks” in the UK, and to encourage people to use and to celebrate them.

“We just want to spread the message of environmentally sustainable gardens as places of healing and listening,” Ms Winkett concluded. “And we want to make sure that this beautiful public sacred space is open to everyone and able to be welcoming to people of all faiths and none.”

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