All Aboard for Chelsea

by Roger Malone, Western Morning News 2 April 2016

Luxury travel played its part in botanical exploration. Roger Malone learns about a major display linking plants and Pullmans

The golden age of train travel, with new routes opening up unexplored territories, was a boon for early plant hunters. It gave these intre pid individuals a means of reaching far-flung destinations quicker and in more comfort than was previously possible.

At this year’s Chelsea Flower Show these dual fascinations of foreign travel and exotic horticulture will combine for a journey through time in what is the event’s largest display.

The 6,000 square foot show garden is being created by Devon-based multi-RHS gold medal winning Bowdens – and designed around British Belmond Pullman’s impressive Art Deco 1920s carriage ‘Zena’.

Instead of the train taking plant hunters to the plants, this spectacular arrangement at Chelsea sees the specimens miraculously taking root around the carriage.

“The display will be a magnificent feast for the eyes,” promises Tim Penrose, CEO of Bowdens.

“It has been four years in the planning and will encompass thousands of plants.” With the carriage “planted” amongst a rich array of flora and fauna, the public will enjoy a unique journey evoking the gilded age of travel.

The adventure begins at a quintessential English country station platform decked out in period ephemera. Passing through the elegant carriage the visitor exits at a rainforest station and into a world of orchids, ferns and other plants growing in tropical trees and carpeting the forest floor.

Here is a plant collector’s hut, built of split bamboo, as found in the Cameroon Highlands and Malaysia.

This jungle scenario is a far cry from England at the beginning of our journey with its contrasting Victorian era gentleman’s greenhouse housing exotic ferns. The opulent ‘Zena’, with its neat linen and cutlery and liveried stewards, reflects an era when trains pioneered the way for travellers to cross international borders – enabling plant hunters of the time to unearth new and exotic species.

“Rare plant specimens will be on display,” says Tim. “They will include distinctive jungle ferns, tree ferns from New Zealand, neat hostas, orchids and bamboo from the East as well as the oldest fern book in the world, dating back to 1705.”

The elite combination of Belmond and Bowdens has created a historic first at this year’s Royal Horticultural Society Chelsea Flower Show, with the largest ever display since the show began 102 years ago.

Bowdens, run by Tim and Ruth Penrose, is a family business at Sticklepath on the northern edge of Dartmoor, specialising in mail order plants. They hold an impressive haul of 126 RHS Gold Medals, including 26 at Chelsea Flower Show. This 60ft long centrepiece ‘Zena’ is normally part of the Belmond British Pullman, the sister train to the legendary Venice Simplon-Orient-Express.

The 2016 RHS Chelsea Flower Show runs from May 24 to 28.