Chelsea Pensioners build own eden after flower show axed for first time since WW2

Much to the delight of his whooping Chelsea Pensioner pals practising socially distanced sunbathing with cuppas nearby, regimental sergeant major Arthur Currie picks me a sweet pea.

With mauve petals like butterflies’ wings, it smells of pure summer, and I can’t help but giggle like a teenager as the Pensioners whistle.

Life has been challenging here at London’s historic Royal Chelsea Hospital during the pandemic. Ten of the 290 veteran retirees who live here have been lost to Covid-19, although thankfully 74 more have battled symptoms and won.

Under strict lockdown, these naturally active military men and women are unable to go out or receive visitors, and the silence and emptiness of their prestigious grounds is a sad reminder of what else they are missing this week, too.

The RHS Chelsea Flower Show, held here since 1913, was forced to cancel this year for the first time since the Second World War, and they all express dismay for the lost 150,000 visitors who usually bring such excitement to their home.

Yet there’s still a zest for life in the air. Spirits feel high, and veterans tell me that is in part because of the joy they have taken in tending their allotments.

There are 20 plots here all bountiful with vegetables, fruit, perfumed roses, stately foxgloves and dazzling Californian poppies, plus raised beds like Arthur’s, streaked with characteristically regimental rows, which make everyone grin.

Barbara Whilds, 75, says “it has been very soothing to be out in the open air” during lockdown

Smiling in her own plot, another Pensioner, Barbara Whilds, 75, tells me: “We are missing the Chelsea Flower Show, we usually have such a buzz to the place, it’s such a shame.

“But these are our Chelsea at the moment,” she explains, gesturing to the Eden around her. “It has been very soothing to be out in the open air, to hear the birds singing and know the gardening world carries on, just as before.”

A former psychiatric nurse with the Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Corps, originally from Hull, she nods sagely when I suggest gardening has helped sustain the Pensioners at this time. She’s been gardening up to five hours a day. “Gardening has always been a solace to me, even more nowadays.

“A garden calms the mind. I treated people with PTSD, really struggling. Even in the 1970s, we had them out gardening – it was very good for them.”

Regimental Sergeant Major Arthur Currie, 72

For Arthur, 72, his two raised beds have helped bring activity and order to this quieter life.

From Coleraine, Northern Ireland, he served with the Queen’s Royal Irish Hussars, and he talks me through each trim row.

He laughs when I ask if a ruler has been used. “I have a good eye” he insists. “The others tease me.”

All this produces echoes a time after the Second World War, when the Pensioners grew vegetables to assist the post-war effort.

Now, of course, they grow them mainly to sustain their own wellbeing. Loss of routine hits these military folk hard.

Keeping a grasp of the self-discipline which has directed their lives has been key during lockdown.

Many have even remained in uniform. So to get up and sow, tend, water, harvest, to follow a pattern, is invaluable.

The Chelsea Flower Show normally attracts huge crowds – but not this year

Arthur, who served in the first Gulf War in 1991, admits inactivity breeds dangerous thinking time.

He reflects: “Total war is a horrible thing, you see things and are asked to do things that no human being should ever be asked to do. Particularly in here now, you have time to think. The gardening has been a big part of my routine.”

He feels towards coronavirus much as he did towards the fear of chemical weapons in the Gulf.

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“It was the fear of the unknown, like the virus. You can’t see your enemy. If you can see your enemy, you stand half a chance.”

Over in the main plots again, I catch Jim Lycett, 76, before he heads for a routine Covid-19 test. He’s standing proudly in a corner before his glistening white arum lily, which has burst into elegant trumpets.

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It feels especially poignant. On April 1, his fifth great-grandchild was born – named Lily. Of course, he hasn’t been able to meet her, and doesn’t know when he will.

“I’m looking forward to meeting her,” he says, putting a brave face on.

Jim, a radio operator with the Royal Signals for 25 years, never had a big garden before he moved to Chelsea after his wife died.

So it is here, with a fair bit of guidance from Barbara, that he has grown vegetables for the first time. “This feels like such a luxury to me,” he smiles. “It gets me out in the fresh air.

“I spend most of the day here. I say hello to the others, although we stand two metres apart. There’s banter, a bit of fun. The garden keeps you going, and then it’s lovely to share the vegetables.”

Back at the door to Arthur’s room he picks me a leaving gift – a perfect strawberry. As he shows me more pots, I eat.

Its sweetness is a reminder joy can be discovered and nurtured even at the most difficult of times.

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