The Chelsea Flower Show garden that looks to an ancient Broadland boat for inspiration
PUBLISHED: 06:45 20 May 2017
A 1,000-year-old boat, discovered beside the River Chet at Loddon, has inspired a garden design at this year’s RHS Chelsea Flower Show. Marion Welham went to meet the designer, Norfolk sculptor and boat-builder Gary Breeze.
The sheer audacity of working up a design for the world’s most prestigious flower show to say nothing of the adrenaline rush of tough deadlines and the glare of publicity is familiar to Gary Breeze who won a Gold for his first RHS Chelsea garden last year.
Could the whole process perhaps be addictive?
“Well, doing it once probably wasn’t enough but I’m beginning to think it’s more like, you know, hard work,” laughs Gary, who lives in Diss with his wife Suzanne, a landscape artist. Right now he’s fairly well earthed poring over tables of offsets in the stores of a noisy Lowestoft boatyard where ‘The Broadland Boatbuilder’s Garden’ is taking shape for this year’s Chelsea show, which begins on Tuesday.
The tables mean nothing to most of us but to a traditional boat-builder like Gary, they show the dimensions and curves of the medieval Chet boat being replicated for this year’s RHS Chelsea Flower Show, sponsored by the International Boatbuilding Training College (IBTC).
Somehow Gary, 50, manages to organise life as a boatbuilder and garden designer alongside his role as letter sculptor with a national portfolio that includes work on the Princess of Wales memorial at Althorp, the tomb of Richard III in Leicester, and a Battle of Britain memorial coin for the Royal Mint.
Over the snarl of an electric saw from the workshop next door, he patiently fills in the gaps.
“I first came and looked at this college in 1995 so that’s how long I’ve wanted to come here. Then, in 2008 I was artist in residence at Southampton University at the Centre of Maritime Archaeology and it awakened this real passion for boatbuilding. So I finally came here, did a course and ended up staying.” Gary worked with co-designer Martin Cook on last year’s Chelsea garden - the Gold-medal and Best Fresh Garden award-winning ‘Antithesis of Sarcophagi’ - a 44-tonne cube containing a mysterious rejuvenating woodland described as a world turned inside out.
This time round it’s not about Gary as a sculptor but about highlighting the traditional Broadland boat-building skills he’s so passionate about and the often unsung work of the IBTC.
The idea of the garden took hold after the Broads Authority commissioned the boatyard to build a replica of the six-metre oak boat they had discovered and excavated by the River Chet at Loddon four years ago.
“Only a few weeks ago, they thought the boat was from around 1500,” says Gary. “But having done carbon dating on the water proofing between the planks it turns out to be much older than they thought and probably built around 1100.”
The boat for the Chelsea garden will be a three-quarter sized prototype for the replica.
“We thought it would be a great inspiration to use the idea of this boat being built in the Broads contemporaneously with the Middle Ages,” says Gary, who offers the following scene-setter:
“The year is 1117. By the edge of a Norfolk river a boat-builder has been at work. His yard, a humble garden, and the Broadland landscape around, provide both the materials for his trade and sustenance for his family. A sail has been rigged to provide a makeshift shelter from sun and rain.”
Fast forward to this Broadland boatyard on the shore of Lake Lothing in the year 2017, and Gary spells out the challenges of replicating the Chet boat using those same traditional skills.
“All we had to go on were archaeologists’ drawings of bits of wood because this boat was just lying in the mud. As it was lifted, it broke up into tiny bits and had to be all carefully drawn and measured. We had to work out what shape it would have been from the bits.”
It was down to Gary to produce a full-size line drawing and a small model of how the boat would look.
“You end up with a table of offsets. From this, a boat-builder can build a boat.”
And that’s just what boat-builder Rob Salmon is doing. Surrounded by other construction projects in full swing, he hammers the same type of iron nails into the Chet prototype that would have been used 1,000 years ago. Wooden pegs will also be used as well as animal hair and tar for waterproofing.
“We’re trying to keep everything local – apart from the sails, which are being made in Maldon,” Gary explains. The timber that’s being used inside the garden to re-create a little staithe is actually taken from old timbers that have been taken out of Potter Heigham by the Broads Authority so we are using reclaimed wood and all the plants will be indigenous and grown locally.”
The garden will contain plants native to the dykes that criss-cross the grazing marshes, all overseen by Natural Gardens of Great Ryburgh, near Fakenham.
A Chelsea garden is obviously a major diversion for the boatyard but owner Mike Tupper reckons it’s a fantastic thing to do.
“There’s a resurgence in craft work at the moment and what this does is show another craft within the RHS. Quarter of a million people go through Chelsea and if they can see the skill and passion that goes into something like this, it can only be good for the college and the industry and that’s very important.”
As well as winning a Gold medal and gaining Best Fresh Garden Award, Gary’s design last year was described by BBC Gardeners’ World presenter Monty Don as “one of the most uplifting things I have ever seen at Chelsea”. Let’s hope Gary can do it again with the remarkable boat-builders of Lowestoft.