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Cotswold Flower Club Exhibition, Westminster Abbey

PUBLISHED: 18:01 29 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:59 20 February 2013

Carolyn Gordon-Smith's Broadway home, with borders full of delphiniums, lupins, roses and lavender that she uses in her floral displays

Carolyn Gordon-Smith's Broadway home, with borders full of delphiniums, lupins, roses and lavender that she uses in her floral displays

Everything's coming up roses for a thriving Cotswold flower club that's been asked to take part in a very special exhibition in Westminster Abbey

To anyone else, the parcel that's arrived for Carolyn Gordon-Smith and Wendy Lawrence might seem a little puzzling. It contains skeletal shapes - gilded struts and glass prisms. To the uninitiated, it resembles a puzzle of Krypton-Factor proportions.


But for Carolyn and Wendy - both members of Cheltenham Flower Club - this is excitement indeed. For its arrival means they can get to work designing the most important pieces of floral art they've ever been asked to create. Under their skilful hands, hundreds of pounds' worth of creamy white flowers - exotic Singapore orchids, delicate roses, fragrant calla lilies - will be woven between the struts until the very blooms look as if they've assembled themselves into lantern-shapes.


And when they're finished, these two floral lanterns are destined for great things: for they will hang between the chandeliers in Westminster Abbey in May, as part of the Rejoice Festival of Flowers, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the National Association of Flower Arrangement Societies (NAFAS). Tens of thousands of visitors will flock there over four days, including one particularly important guest: for the Queen has accepted an invitation to attend a special service as part of the celebrations.


"We feel very excited to be part of it," says Carolyn, who's also club chairman. "Westminster Abbey has some wonderful chandeliers down the aisles and we've been


asked to replicate them with our designs."


Cheltenham is one of only two clubs out of 72 in the huge Three Counties and South Wales Area that have been chosen to participate (the other is Severnside). The honour is, in part, a recognition that this is one of the biggest such clubs in the country - from its roots back in the 1950s, it has blossomed into a magnificent 200 members. Photographs of the original gatherings show a bunch of ladies with prim hats, deft fingers, and plenty of time on their hands. But it's not only times that have changed. Go along to a meeting nowadays, and you'll find those sorts of stereotypes were ditched along with Formica tabletops. In 2009, the club is patronised by men and women (though the former are still among the rarer blooms) of all ages, many of whom nip out in their working lunch-hours to catch flower-club meetings - Carolyn herself is director of a PR company.


The other reason why Cheltenham has been asked to take part is down to sheer ability. Even amongst a host of impressive talent, Carolyn and Wendy stand out. Alongside other laurels, Carolyn was a finalist in the UK stand-off for the World Association of Flower Arrangers; while Wendy and fellow member Rosemary Stammers won last year's area NAFAS competition with a dazzling array entitled 'Diamonds': "An arrangement that included lilac roses - my favourite colour - F green and Bianca roses, and gypsophila, with silver, crystals, volcanic rock and glass on an eight-foot stand," Wendy says.


Just as important in their list of credentials, the two of them joke, is that they can survive without much sleep. "You can plan everything in advance, but you can't pre-assemble the arrangements," Carolyn explains. "We'll be up and down ladders, arranging it all the night before the exhibition - the flowers will be waiting for us in the abbey when we arrive."


The duo will be bringing different, but complementary, approaches to their design. While Carolyn favours the slightly more traditional, Wendy tends towards a continental style: "In traditional flower arranging, the idea is to include a variety of forms and textures, with flowers on different levels, though always with a focal point. But Europeans use a lot of forest flowers, which can't be manipulated in the same way. Instead, they mass flowers together - they might use 10 carnations in a block, where Constance Spry would have dotted them throughout. The Westminster Abbey work we will be doing will be very much along European lines," Wendy explains.


When even giddy young things such as pop singer Lily Allen - who puts together the odd bouquet for relaxation - admit to enjoying flower arranging, you can see how the art is fast shaking off a once fuddy-duddy image. When the club recently introduced classes by popular demand, places went almost instantly.


"There is a trend for younger people to see the beauty of producing arrangements in their own homes," Carolyn says. "We've had so many television programmes telling us how to make our houses look wonderful; flowers are the next stage. Rather than paying a florist, people are keen to try themselves. And in the same way that we're being encouraged to grow our own vegetables, there's a huge amount of fun in producing your own garden flowers to put in arrangements."


Indeed, they've both keen to emphasise it's not an expensive hobby. Carolyn's Cotswold-stone home in Broadway - an old gamekeeper's cottage - attracts visitors from other flower clubs who come to admire the garden with its multifarious blooms, including delicately-pink David Austin Eglantine roses, dahlias, sweet peas, gladioli, delphiniums, and many plants from Bob Brown's Cotswold Garden Flowers at Badsey. Wendy has spent nearly 30 years transforming the field around her village house near Tewkesbury into a paradise for butterflies and varied wildlife.


Both are qualified floral demonstrators; on stage, they're often called on to complete one arrangement every quarter of an hour. They're also, as fellow members will tell you, full of great tips: "Tulips will continue growing in an arrangement! You've got to think about that if you're using them in competition work." "You shouldn't pick flowers in full sunlight." "Take the leaves off a rose; otherwise they'll take all the water."


"And I always burn the stems of roses on the cooker ring - while protecting the heads - before plunging them into cold water," Wendy says. "It makes them last much longer."


They won't be using garden flowers for the abbey, of course. One reason why exotic blooms, such as orchids, are called for is because the display has to last for nearly a week - a long time in the life of floral art.


Does it worry them that all their work - including five months or more of planning - is destined to be so transient?


They laugh. "Not at all," says Carolyn. "It just means I get to do more. It's one of those pastimes you get hooked on."


Wendy couldn't agree more. "My husband always says I go quiet whenever I'm fretting from 'flower starvation'. Just after Christmas is the worst time: I'm always desperate to get my hands on more!"



Cheltenham Flower Club is holding an open meeting at 2pm on Monday, May 11 when Barry Grey will be giving a demonstration in the Pittville Pump Room. Everyone is welcome, entry 8.


For more information on Rejoice, the Festival of Flowers in Westminster Abbey, from May 7-10, visit www.nafas.org.uk



To anyone else, the parcel that's arrived for Carolyn Gordon-Smith and Wendy Lawrence might seem a little puzzling. It contains skeletal shapes - gilded struts and glass prisms. To the uninitiated, it resembles a puzzle of Krypton-Factor proportions.


But for Carolyn and Wendy - both members of Cheltenham Flower Club - this is excitement indeed. For its arrival means they can get to work designing the most important pieces of floral art they've ever been asked to create. Under their skilful hands, hundreds of pounds' worth of creamy white flowers - exotic Singapore orchids, delicate roses, fragrant calla lilies - will be woven between the struts until the very blooms look as if they've assembled themselves into lantern-shapes.


And when they're finished, these two floral lanterns are destined for great things: for they will hang between the chandeliers in Westminster Abbey in May, as part of the Rejoice Festival of Flowers, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the National Association of Flower Arrangement Societies (NAFAS). Tens of thousands of visitors will flock there over four days, including one particularly important guest: for the Queen has accepted an invitation to attend a special service as part of the celebrations.


"We feel very excited to be part of it," says Carolyn, who's also club chairman. "Westminster Abbey has some wonderful chandeliers down the aisles and we've been


asked to replicate them with our designs."


Cheltenham is one of only two clubs out of 72 in the huge Three Counties and South Wales Area that have been chosen to participate (the other is Severnside). The honour is, in part, a recognition that this is one of the biggest such clubs in the country - from its roots back in the 1950s, it has blossomed into a magnificent 200 members. Photographs of the original gatherings show a bunch of ladies with prim hats, deft fingers, and plenty of time on their hands. But it's not only times that have changed. Go along to a meeting nowadays, and you'll find those sorts of stereotypes were ditched along with Formica tabletops. In 2009, the club is patronised by men and women (though the former are still among the rarer blooms) of all ages, many of whom nip out in their working lunch-hours to catch flower-club meetings - Carolyn herself is director of a PR company.


The other reason why Cheltenham has been asked to take part is down to sheer ability. Even amongst a host of impressive talent, Carolyn and Wendy stand out. Alongside other laurels, Carolyn was a finalist in the UK stand-off for the World Association of Flower Arrangers; while Wendy and fellow member Rosemary Stammers won last year's area NAFAS competition with a dazzling array entitled 'Diamonds': "An arrangement that included lilac roses - my favourite colour - F green and Bianca roses, and gypsophila, with silver, crystals, volcanic rock and glass on an eight-foot stand," Wendy says.


Just as important in their list of credentials, the two of them joke, is that they can survive without much sleep. "You can plan everything in advance, but you can't pre-assemble the arrangements," Carolyn explains. "We'll be up and down ladders, arranging it all the night before the exhibition - the flowers will be waiting for us in the abbey when we arrive."


The duo will be bringing different, but complementary, approaches to their design. While Carolyn favours the slightly more traditional, Wendy tends towards a continental style: "In traditional flower arranging, the idea is to include a variety of forms and textures, with flowers on different levels, though always with a focal point. But Europeans use a lot of forest flowers, which can't be manipulated in the same way. Instead, they mass flowers together - they might use 10 carnations in a block, where Constance Spry would have dotted them throughout. The Westminster Abbey work we will be doing will be very much along European lines," Wendy explains.


When even giddy young things such as pop singer Lily Allen - who puts together the odd bouquet for relaxation - admit to enjoying flower arranging, you can see how the art is fast shaking off a once fuddy-duddy image. When the club recently introduced classes by popular demand, places went almost instantly.


"There is a trend for younger people to see the beauty of producing arrangements in their own homes," Carolyn says. "We've had so many television programmes telling us how to make our houses look wonderful; flowers are the next stage. Rather than paying a florist, people are keen to try themselves. And in the same way that we're being encouraged to grow our own vegetables, there's a huge amount of fun in producing your own garden flowers to put in arrangements."


Indeed, they've both keen to emphasise it's not an expensive hobby. Carolyn's Cotswold-stone home in Broadway - an old gamekeeper's cottage - attracts visitors from other flower clubs who come to admire the garden with its multifarious blooms, including delicately-pink David Austin Eglantine roses, dahlias, sweet peas, gladioli, delphiniums, and many plants from Bob Brown's Cotswold Garden Flowers at Badsey. Wendy has spent nearly 30 years transforming the field around her village house near Tewkesbury into a paradise for butterflies and varied wildlife.


Both are qualified floral demonstrators; on stage, they're often called on to complete one arrangement every quarter of an hour. They're also, as fellow members will tell you, full of great tips: "Tulips will continue growing in an arrangement! You've got to think about that if you're using them in competition work." "You shouldn't pick flowers in full sunlight." "Take the leaves off a rose; otherwise they'll take all the water."


"And I always burn the stems of roses on the cooker ring - while protecting the heads - before plunging them into cold water," Wendy says. "It makes them last much longer."


They won't be using garden flowers for the abbey, of course. One reason why exotic blooms, such as orchids, are called for is because the display has to last for nearly a week - a long time in the life of floral art.


Does it worry them that all their work - including five months or more of planning - is destined to be so transient?


They laugh. "Not at all," says Carolyn. "It just means I get to do more. It's one of those pastimes you get hooked on."


Wendy couldn't agree more. "My husband always says I go quiet whenever I'm fretting from 'flower starvation'. Just after Christmas is the worst time: I'm always desperate to get my hands on more!"



Cheltenham Flower Club is holding an open meeting at 2pm on Monday, May 11 when Barry Grey will be giving a demonstration in the Pittville Pump Room. Everyone is welcome, entry 8.


For more information on Rejoice, the Festival of Flowers in Westminster Abbey, from May 7-10, visit www.nafas.org.uk



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