Lucy reflects on Maytime traditions, the politics of being English and the origins of the Spring Show in west London that has become RHS Chelsea

Background Shape
Church Window Mask

Recently I went with my family to the place where I was born and visited the church where I was baptised.  I was born in Salisbury in Wiltshire and baptised at the font in the 12th century church of St Leonard’s Bulford.  I wasn’t really expecting it to be as affecting as it was.  Reacquainting myself with the amazing Stonehenge, walking across that ancient land, I remembered that, having been born in Wiltshire, I am a ‘Wiltshire moonraker’, named after the smugglers of rum, who submerged barrels under the water and moved them by moonlight at night.

And one of the insights that I’ve been reflecting on from the Changing our Minds series of conversations is the idea of being indigenous, becoming indigenous where you are now in the present.  Connected to the land where you are, even in the middle of London on one of the busiest and built up roads in the city.

The beginning of May is a time when I feel probably the most English I feel all year. MayDay is a time of traditional dances and customs, fusing, as much old English culture does, Christian and pagan ritual, the relationship between land and trade, and in focussing on the workers, the importance of work and independent-minded protest.  The truth is, that for all the travelling that is possible in 21st century western society, and that I have benefitted from, I now live less than 100 miles from where I was born.  Salisbury Plain and central London can feel like different worlds in many ways, but I feel a strong connection to the pre-historic character of this island and its ancient pagan, then Christian ways.  But the meaning of being English has been toxified by those who want to weaponise its history to control, exclude and dominate society’s narratives today.  And the recent violence just a stone’s throw from St James’s on the Feast of St George, 23rd April 2024, was only the latest expression of that.  Without washing away or under-emphasising all the reasons to interrogate and challenge narratives of Englishness, and the terrible actions taken in the name of Englishness in the past and the present, I have long felt strongly that I want to find ways to re-claim this identity for myself as intrinsically inclusive. Even the erroneous claims that try to weaponise ‘Anglo-Saxon’ are just obviously and simply wrong, as it’s a multi-cultural term in itself.

The beginning of May, the beginning of Spring, is traditionally accompanied by dancing, flowers, the inversion of accepted hierarchies in the crowning of children as leaders and a rather chaotic and energetic focus on fecundity in the natural world by, for example, the release of wild hares and deer into May festival crowds emphasising connection, interdependence with the land.

In 1913, a new 3 day Spring Show was started in west London as a way for horticulturists to come together to celebrate (and sell) the flowers and vegetables they had grown. Located in just one tent, the celebration was deliberately held in May as a marking of the start of Spring. This year, the Chelsea Flower Show will welcome over 40,000 visitors each day of its 6 days and has a renewed focus on biodiversity and the environmental challenges humanity faces.  While mass-market horticulture and agriculture might be identified as processes that have been responsible in part for the planet’s decline in health overall, the interaction between human beings’ ingenuity and the natural world’s cooperation, or not, with this creativity, is surely food for thought.  Today, a day ticket for non RHS members to the Chelsea Flower Show is £92.85, so it’s not a particularly inclusive event in itself that week.  But the Royal Horticultural Society makes it clear that the planting is available to the public at the end of the show. Nothing is to be thrown away or wasted, unlike in the past.

St James’s garden ‘Imagine the World to be Different’ designed by Robert Myers, will take its place alongside many other charities and organisations at the Show this year.  The ‘pioneer plants’ that grew up in the ruins of the wartime building after 1940 will be there, as will shrubs and trees pointing towards the Ecozoic, when a hotter and wetter climate will demand different horticultural and agricultural plans.  It is unusual for a church to have a garden at the Show (perhaps we really are the first, as we and the RHS believe), but it’s a way for the church to be in an environment and speaking to audiences that wouldn’t expect it to be there.  And as a way of communicating the message of love, inclusion, celebration and penitence that the church can bring to society, it is a brilliant thing to do.  The garden has been funded by ‘Project Giving Back’ to whom we’re hugely grateful. And of course it’s about raising funds and awareness of St James’s and the work we do, encouraging new friends to get involved with the church and with the Wren Project.  At the end of the week, the plants will be re planted at St Pancras Euston Road as one small step in our partnership, and as some assistance in improving the environs of the church building itself, making the beauty of these plants and flowers available to all. As part of the whole project, St James’s earth justice group and clergy are broadcasting Sunday Worship on Radio 4 on Sunday 19th May at 8.10am, and are part of BBC1’ Songs of Praise in May too. Get involved by volunteering to be part of a team at St James’s welcoming visitors during the day from 19th May onwards, speak with either Dee or Claire or email

On the back wall of the St James’s RHS Chelsea garden is a quotation from the former Rector William Temple, saying that the church is the only institution in society that exists for the benefit of those who don’t belong to it.  It’s a fitting motto for a Church for England, that must, if it is to survive, remain outward-looking, focussed on deep connection with God and the natural world, clear-eyed about the past, and determined to celebrate the intrinsic inclusiveness of this land. I’ve learned about this recently from Lambeth’s Poet Laureate Abstract Benna whose work uses language that’s both urban and environmental. When I saw him perform recently, I found that his idea stayed with me; that all of us who live in this place think of ourselves not as an ‘island’ but a ’we-land’.  Amen to that.