Slate expectations

Kim Wilde tells Lynn Greenwood why she chose the romantic landscape of the Lake District as the inspiration for her first-ever exhibit.

Kim Wilde, blonde hair tucked beneath a miner’s safety helmet, is half a mile underground in the Cumbrian fells. She has come to the only working slate mine in England to choose 10 tons of green slate for the dry stone walls that will enclose her first-ever Chelsea Flower Show entry.
Back in the open air, near the entrance to the Honister Slate Mine at Buttermere, she examines a handful of sample wall-panels built out of the slate that is used on the roofs of royal palaces and the Ritz Hotel.

“It’s like going to the supermarket and being able to choose exactly what you want,” says Wilde, who, with her co-designer Richard Lucas, is scheming The Cumbrian Fellside Garden. A “latecomer” to Cumbria, she first visited in 1996 while on a two-day break from the rock musical Tommy. These days she has no excuse, since her in-laws live in the Lake District. “I have completely fallen in love with the dry-stone walls covered in green moss with tiny flowers sticking out of crevices at different angles,” she says. “And with the wild flowers growing on the road sides.”

Lucas, who is now based in Shropshire, has lived and worked in the Lake District, so it seemed an obvious choice for their Chelsea collaboration. Early planning started a year ago on the lawn of Wilde’s half-acre Hertfordshire garden, within hearing of the Knebworth estate’s rock concerts.

“We used anything we could lay our hands on when we were designing it – bricks, a child’s chair, the dead branch of a tree to suggest the height of our hawthorn tree, a bucket for the slate urn, all to give us an idea of the space and scale of our garden,” says Wilde. They entrusted a small model to artist Judith Glover – who designed her first Chelsea garden last year – in part because Wilde had coveted her watercolour-filled notebooks when they shared the same horticultural college course.

The team’s site – RM10 – is one of the showground’s smallest at just 4m by 4.5m (about 13ft by 15ft). “The problem was how to capture a slice of Cumbria in such a small space. But we will achieve it,” Wilde says. The aim is to suggest a farmhouse garden, where a crumbled section of wall has been replaced by a stretch of chestnut post-and-rail fencing, to be built by Knebworth’s expert woodsman and deer-keeper, Lloyd Watkins (known to everyone as Wocko). He will also make the wooden stile leading out of the garden. A “largish trickle” of water will tumble down a rill, in an imitation of a fellside rivulet.
A mature hawthorn stands at one corner, a native elder at the other, both from Civic Trees in Hertfordshire. And while the rear of the garden will be filled mainly with wild flowers, the front is planted with a spread of mostly herbaceous perennials by Claire Austin Hardy Plants in Shropshire and British Wildflower Plants of Norfolk. These include plants native to Cumbria – the pale-pink Geranium sanguineum var. striatum, originally found on Walney Island, and the greenish yellow Alchemilla alpina.

Two kinds of aquilegia, the blue vulgaris and pink ‘Nora Barlow’, the intense orange of Pilosella aurantiaca, often called fox and cubs, astrantia, Linaria purpurea and L. purpurea ‘Canon Went’ are all included. “The whole effect will be soft and romantic – we want people who see it to go weak at the knees,” says Wilde. Old slate flagstones will be inset with a 10cm-wide strip of polished slate bearing the engraved words from a line of William Wordsworth’s 1802 poem A Farewell. It was on her first visit to the Lakeland poet’s Grasmere home, Rydal Mount, that Wilde read the words: “Our spirits carrying with them dreams of flowers”.

Wilde and Lucas have worked together on many projects – including the planting design of the RHS silver medal-winning Enchanted Garden at last year’s Hampton Court Palace Flower Show. As partners, they appear to complement one another. While Wilde is hugely excited by the prospect of the more high-profile Chelsea exhibit, Lucas, who has been responsible for growing on some of the plants, is more cautious and seems aware of the potential difficulties.

“I always have a great time when I make a garden, there’s such an adrenaline rush,” says Wilde. “We’ve been working on this for a year now and it feels as though we’ve stepped up a gear each week.” She has even had time to plan their Chelsea T-shirts, whose slogans will reflect their horticultural sense of humour. There will be the obvious Flower Power, followed by Don’t Panicum, to be worn before the judging, as well as Plantaholics Euonymus. Wilde is amused to find that although she has swapped showbusiness for horticulture, style is still an issue. “Just image a range of horticultural fashion,” she says.

She recalls her first visit to Chelsea Flower Show five or six years ago, when she was working as a presenter. “I walked round at dawn before the public arrived and it was simply gorgeous. I was like a kid in a candy store, surrounded by lovely plants I had never seen before. I remember thinking, ‘Wow, I wonder if I’ll ever…’ And here we are.”