What the Queen told me
Queen Elizabeth II has been a regular at Chelsea Flower Show of the years, making conversation with designer and exhibitor alike. Here a series of top Chelsea designers share their stories of when they met The Queen
Queen Elizabeth II was a regular at RHS Chelsea Flower Show and she always made time to meet designers and growers on her tour of the event. Here are a few encounters between The Queen and the horticultural community.
Read our piece remembering The Queen and her love of horticulture and gardens.
Mark Gregory, Landform Consultants
Meeting the Queen at Chelsea could be a bit of a tense moment, because all the press followed her about, but she was always very natural and she put people at ease. The first time I met her I was working on a garden which focused on home offices and networking, in 2003. It had glass stepping stones over a pool, which led to the office or studio. She was brought over to the garden and I was introduced and asked to explain the garden's concept. I said: 'It’s about home working, so you’ve got to imagine that you’re somewhere like Slough'. Entirely forgetting that Windsor Castle is in Slough. And she said: ‘Oh we’ve nothing like this in Slough'. We had a giggle.
Then the RHS director general asked if she’d like to go into the building, which meant crossing the glass stepping stones. She looked at them and you could see she was thinking: there’s no way you’re getting me on those stones. Instead she looked up at the sky and said: ‘Do you know what, it looks like rain, no I think we better get moving on’.
Matt Keightley, garden designer
One year at Chelsea I had been stood on my garden at the top of Main Avenue, waiting for the royal procession to filter through the show ground. Round and round in my head were the words I thought I might produce as I was introduced to the Queen: 'Good Afternoon your Majesty', 'Nice to meet you, your Majesty'…'Ma’am as in Ham, not Ma’am as in farm' and so on.
It felt like a long wait and then all of a sudden a large crowd gathered in front of me. Prince Harry who I’d met a few times by this point, stepped forward with his grandma beside him. Before I knew it, Prince Harry had said 'Meet Matt.' There was a handshake and a pause followed by all I could muster which was 'Afternoon'!
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We then proceeded to start walking the garden path together, when she paused and looked up at me, 'What is that sinister looking implement', she said. I was holding what I can only describe as a metal rod that resembled a cattle prod and looking back something her security detail could have easily seen as a threat. It was in fact the steel template we had made to create children’s footprints in the stone path and The Queen was simply showing a genuine interest.
That was very first time I met the Queen, not quite as I had planned, but a fleeting moment I will always remember.
Jekka McVicar, herb expert
One of the times I met the Queen was in 2016 and our conversation hit the headlines. I had done the St John’s Hospice garden and one of the women I had worked with had produced a posy which we gave to the Queen and Her Majesty said: ‘Can you explain what the herbs are?’ so I explained and it came to Lily of the Valley and I explained that actually it is highly poisonous. She said: 'Oh dear! I’ve been given a lot of Lily of the Valley over the last few weeks.'
It was a conversation that was just between three of us, but a newspaper overheard and it went worldwide. She was an absolutely fantastic woman, I was totally lucky, as she felt very fun and had a real sense of humour and a lovely zest of life.
Another encounter was the year my cookbook came out, I was visited by Prince Philip on our trade stand on Main Avenue and he picked up the book and sped read and even picked out a spelling mistake and then asked why fennel stopped flatulence. When I replied that I didn’t think I could explain that to him, he said: 'Of course you can, spit it out'. So I explained about aniseed. He looked over the book and said: ‘I rather like this’ and when I said that was lucky because I had just given one to The Queen, he said: ‘That’s no good, I’m the cook!’ so I gave him a copy too. I have a lovely image of them sitting together in bed both reading it.
Nick Bailey, horticulturalist and writer
I have a few stories about the Royal Family, including the fact that Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie came to one of the gardens I did and were both obsessed with the viewing platform I had in my garden and wanted to buy it. But one of the funnier stories was when Princess Anne came to the edge of my garden one year and lent over to me and whispered: ‘there’s a load of old rubbish here, but this is lovely.’
I think when the Royal Family are at Chelsea they are a little more relaxed than normal because they are en masse and there isn’t so much pressure on them individually. I’ve never actually spoken to the Queen, and I wouldn’t describe myself as a royalist, but when you see her there’s a sort of aura around Her Majesty. It’s extraordinary. I can’t really describe it. She was such an icon.
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