To the Butchers’ Hall in Smithfield for the Spring Court lunch of the Worshipful Company of Gardeners. (The gardeners, it seems, have never had a hall of their own – nor even, disappointingly, a garden).
Not all of the medieval livery companies, though, have stayed close to their origins. The Almoners, Broderers, Cordwainers, Fanmakers, Furriers, Tallow Chandlers….. some sounding almost impossibly removed from modern life, have each found a related or equivalent and usually charitable role (coach makers, for example, in aerospace). The gardeners have had no need: they still do what it says on the tin.
At this crowded and celebratory lunch (with, I’m happy to say, lovely flowers and excellent veg) their Royal Master, the Earl of Wessex – royal masters of livery companies are far from common – presented awards to two most worthy married couples. Jody and Clare Scheckter, (he is better known in Formula One racing) for their organic farming on an industrial scale at Laverstoke in Hampshire, and Patrice and Hélène Fustier, the owners of the Château de Courson and its twice-yearly Journées des Plantes.
Courson is celebrating its 34th year. It started, I well remember, as a gardeners’ gathering on a domestic scale in the park of their 17th century château, 25 miles south of Paris down the autoroute that leads to Órléans. Simple stands went up on the grass, village fête style. Nurseries crowded pots of plants on the cobbles in the stable yard, many of them plants no one knew were available in France. In one corner of the stables a dealer displayed priceless old botany books in their rich leather bindings. Roy Lancaster was a guest to judge a competition.
It all seemed like a spontaneous celebration of the gardening passion we all thought France had lost. And since that time, sure enough, the green wellies and Range Rovers that became routine at Courson have carried the message all over the Hexagon (as France calls its mainland mass). In the ’80s the British were smug enough to think gardening ended at the Channel. The explosion of interest and skill that is so evident since must be credited, to a high degree, to the Fustiers, to Courson – and indeed its friendly neighbour the Château de St Jean de Beauregard, which now puts on a glorious harvest festival of a show each autumn.
Chelsea has a challenger in May, and both the October Shows far oushine the RHS’s dwindling autumn effort.