Fasten your seat belts. Chelsea’s finest garden is about to take off

imageBryony Gordon visits Diarmuid Gavin’s much-talked about Irish Sky Garden.
Honestly. Anyone would think there was an ash cloud hanging over the Royal Hospital in Chelsea. I had been hoping to go up in the air in Diarmuid Gavin’s much-talked about Irish Sky Garden, but when I get there I am told that for the time being all flights are grounded. Chaos! Dismay! A sea of disappointed faces stare glumly at the flower show’s star attraction: on previous days Gavin had treated Chelsea Flower Show-goers to some pantomime cheers from the pod in the sky (and, fittingly, Christopher Biggins has been for a “flight”).

The man in charge of winching the garden 60ft into the air says it is simply too windy – the pod may not be flying but the same cannot be said for the Laura Ashley skirts of some women of a certain age. Furthermore, thunderstorms are forecast. The technician does not want to send me up in the sky garden because it is attached to a crane “which could act as a giant conductor and I don’t fancy bringing you down charred with frizzy hair”. Oh no. We can’t be doing with frizzy hair.

For now, I must make do with a tour of the bit of the garden on the ground. My guide is the 47-year-old Mr Gavin himself. He is quite short in the flesh and, as one passer-by notes loudly, “much thinner than he looks on the telly”. He is wearing jeans and a brown leather shirt. “You could have ironed it for us,” quips one bloke as we pass.

Gavin talks me through the garden, which won him his first gold medal, but I am not really listening because I am too taken by the hundreds of people gawping at him. Later I read a leaflet and learn that “the garden represents the green of Ireland” and that “the main featured plant species are Carpinus betulus clipped into cone shapes, occasionally with stripped stems”. But wait. For there is more. “Groups of domed shaped yew tumble down gentle hills in cloud formations.” Joining this is bamboo, Buxus sempervirens, dwarf pine and “various ornamental grasses”.

The garden isn’t open to the public – elf and safety; the paths are thin and we don’t want any Chelsea Pensioners falling in the water features – so they look at it from behind the gardener’s equivalent of a velvet rope. And look at it they do. “We love you, Diarmuid!” they shout. “Give us a picture!” He goes to shake their hands. It is like watching Prince William on a walkabout.

Gavin is known as the Damien Hirst of horticulture because, in the world of flowers, he is a bit avant-garde. Senior figures in the RHS in the past called him a “complete nightmare” when his garden full of lottery balls went over-budget. This year he has again ruffled the feathers of some traditionalists, who have complained that the sky garden is too out there, but stuff them. The public love it, even if they haven’t been allowed in it (today they will let in a lucky few). Do women throw their knickers at him, I ask? I am afraid he tells me something I cannot repeat in a family newspaper.

We meet on his last day on site, “thank the Lord”. He doesn’t seem to enjoy Chelsea much. “Well, it’s just about flower arranging, really,” he says. “It’s all about ego.” He got to meet the Queen on Monday, though, which was great “and I thanked her for coming to Ireland, told her how much it meant to us. She said the trip had been wonderful.” But he misses his wife, Justine, and his six-year-old daughter, two beautiful blondes whom he gazes at adoringly on his iPhone.

But it hasn’t all been bad. He had that John Major in his sky garden the other day, and Helen Mirren, too. The Duke of Edinburgh went round it, though he didn’t go up in it as he is nearing 90. “It’s really calm up there,” says Gavin. “I’m not good with heights but it’s just lovely being among the trees. We’re in the centre of London but it’s remarkably peaceful in the sky.”

The next day I wake up and look at the weather. Grey. I return to Chelsea where an engineer is checking windspeed. We are good to go. I board the pod, which is filled with peonies. There are two benches, one dedicated to his mother-in-law, the other to his father, Jack. He passed away recently. They hadn’t seen it coming but Gavin thinks that his dad was ready to go. Jack was an opera buff, a character, and I suppose he is here in the pod with us, watching as his son reigns supreme over Chelsea.

We are all strapped in with seat belts. You don’t even realise it is moving, so seamless is it, and then you are up, staring at the tops of trees. It is lovely. Will Diarmuid be coming back next year? “Oh yes. I already know what I am going to do.” There is an unmistakable twinkle in his eye. You have been warned.

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