A day in the life of a St James’s ambassador at Chelsea Flower Show

Sonia Lee reflects on her enriching experience as an ambassador for St James’s Piccadilly Garden at the Chelsea Flower Show, highlighting the garden’s Gold Award, the enthusiastic public reception.

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Church Window Mask

As Carrie (the St James’s Garden Project Manager for RHS Chelsea) and I rushed through security, and made our way to the St James’s Garden, I asked how it was going? It’s extremely busy! she said. Turning the corner to the garden, I could not have anticipated the sea of visitors at our garden.

After a short briefing and explanation with Lucy on the garden and a prayer, we donned our branded aprons and grabbed our umbrellas. Large crowds had already gathered.

I pondered briefly on what to say to the large crowd as they waited expectantly. Quickly moving into gear., “Welcome to St James Piccadilly’s Garden. We have been awarded Gold and we are very excited”. There were cheers and clapping from the crowd, Congratulations!! They said excitedly, adding that they saw garden on the BBC. I looked nervously at the other ambassadors who seemed quietly engrossed with their groups. My crowd were full of enthusiasm.

I was excited that we had won gold. My previous visit to the Chelsea Flower Show had not prepared me for being an ambassador and part of the SJP team.

The garden “Imagine the world to be different” designed by Robert Myers with elements carefully curated from the church’s history embodying the ethos of St James’s – Imagination, Courage and Hope.  The arched window a feature of the church in Piccadilly references Christopher Wren’s view of connecting people from the outside to the inside.

The Timber Cabin designed by Ivan Morison will serve, in time, as the new space for our drop-in counselling service.  The plants found in the ruins after wartime bombings, recycled bricks and unfired clay exemplify environmental, stewardship and social responsibility which are at the heart of St James’s and their part in society.

The plaque of Ottabah Cugoano etched in the eleven thousand recycled bricks used to build the garden wall ties history into our narrative.

Everything will be repurposed I reassured the crowds of people. As I walked through the different elements of the garden.

A torrential downpour did not deter the visitors, at times we were six feet deep with crowds. As I walked through handing out leaflets, there were gasps of “Wow, Amazing, beautiful, Great work, we have never seen anything like this!! I think your garden should have won.  It’s the best garden!!” smiling diplomatically, I told the crowd that I liked the garden that won, although they could clearly see that I agreed with them.

The emotions of the crowds were evident as they stood taking in the quiet beauty of the garden, eagerly listening to hear more about the garden from us ambassadors.

Some of the questions I recall were, “Why are you here?” “What is the significance of this garden?” “Can you share the reason you are doing this” an American accent called out, reminding me just how international the show is. Another visitor told me that they were a trained retired counsellor, eager to get involved.  Another wanted to bring 28 people from her company on their social responsibility day – we can clear gardens for you! I was touched and overwhelmed at the engagement of the crowd.

The BBC seemed to be permanently filming in the garden. There is Katherine Jenkins, she waved and said hello…who is she? Someone asked, a reminder that there was also an international audience.

As the rain poured down and the garden shone in its glory, one visitor demanded, we put down our umbrellas, so he could see garden in full.

The next few hours went quickly as the ambassadors greeted the crowds and told the story of St James’s and plans for the Wren project. Lucy charmed the crowds with her quirky self-deprecating humour. Wilson majestically holding crowds in the palm of his hands. Nick and Ted responding to questions from curious onlookers. Somehow our hands were being refilled with handouts which the crowds could not get enough of. The temporary porta-cabin was our respite for cups of tea replenishing ourselves ready to face the large crowds again and again.

At the end of my shift, I staggered exhausted to the fish and chips tent. The young man taking my order asked who I worked for; pointing to my apron ‘St James’s Piccadilly’ I said. He hollered over to his manger can I give her fish and chips on the house? With a nod from his manager, I was presented with my meal with a wink of appreciation. I smiled at their generosity.

I sat in the hospitality tent listening to the sultry tones of the music artist performing. My thoughts turned to the garden and my experience.

The Gold Award is more than just a badge of honour it’s a validation of everyone’s contribution. Project Giving Back, who funded the garden, enabled Robert Myers to realise the vision conceived by St James’s team. An outstanding achievement for all.

Volunteering at St James’s Piccadilly Garden has been an enriching experience. As a congregation we have a shared responsibility to keep the spirit of St James’s Piccadilly alive, I experienced it at the show and hope to be there for many more!

Our church and garden, a serene tranquil and safe space for anyone to come in and rest. Let us continue to build on the momentum from the RHS Chelsea Flower Show. Let’s go out and share our unique story with the wider community.

Umbrella and apron optional…..