A Disabled Gardener At RHS Chatsworth

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RHS Chatsworth

Back in 2004, at the height of being in a wheelchair and in constant pain I was house bound, ripping my hair out, developing cabin fever. The only freedom I had was to drive from A to B and stare out the window at whatever was at B. B tended to be a supermarket or the hospital. It was painful to get in and out of the car, and then into the wheelchair that inevitably jarred my spine further every time I was wheeled over a pot hole. There are many pot holes out there. I had to time the taking of painkillers as it is never a good idea to drive when spaced out and seeing pink elephants. That was my highlight, dribbling away my pain in a bed, buffeted by pillows to keep me in one place. Then unexpectedly we were invited to attend a garden show. Back in 2004 I had written several pieces for a gardening magazine under the guise of Ask the Expert, and the show wanted me to come and possibly do a talk. They were interested in how I gardened with my spinal problems. I told them that I was in a wheelchair and they said that was okay because the site was wheelchair accessible. Be wary of when able bodied people tell you something is accessible, nine times out of ten it isn't, no one really notices a pot hole when walking. I arrived, I struggled out of the car and I got stuck in the mud ten yards from the car. It took me thirty minutes to get into the show ground. I got stuck in the produce tent - this had nothing to do with the wonderful cake on show - but more to do with the mire that were the paths and the narrowness of them. Carol struggled to push and in the end we had to be helped by several burly security guards, the whole thing was humiliating and put me off going to shows for years. I learnt to walk again but still have to use a stick and pay for walking without resting. I noticed a few years ago that the RHS had pinned their colours to the mast to tackle this problem at their shows, new paths appeared at Tatton and Chelsea, gone were the quagmires and the damage crowds do to the fields. However, how disabled accessible was it in real terms? Sure, my able bodied friends applauded the interlocking pathways and the fact they could leave their wellies at home but how would it respond to someone with mobility issues? With that in mind the wonderful people at the RHS set me the challenge of picking apart their disabled accessibility.

Wood skills

As we approached Chatsworth it was clearly signed posted with staff easily visible on a miserable, wet day. I was already worrying, thinking of that show we went to in 2004, I asked Carol whether we had food with us in case we needed to towed out of quagmire but this worry quickly faded. The staff quickly and efficiently pointed the way for blue badge parking which was mire free; as we got nearer to the show ground RHS helpers would tell me how long to drive for, and in one instance, 'Can you see my colleague down there with her hand up? Drive down to her and she will show you were to park safely in a dry spot'. Even though the parking was close to the show ground there was a shuttle service for disabled people right up to the entrance. This meant you could go from car to show with support. This attention to detail really does help people like me who measure their energy in spoons. Driving does take it out of you and any help is welcome. There were toilet facilities outside the show ground and just on the inside with a pathway made either from metal or interlocking panels of hard wearing grip plastic. 

RHS Chatsworth, Life on Pig Row, Disability issues

Even on the grassed areas, a mesh had been put down to protect the grass and stop slipping. It's basic things like this that make such shows accessible to able bodied and disabled people. No one likes to fall and I can't afford to fall. It's bad enough to trudge in the mud when you are able but it is far worse in a wheelchair or with a walking stick. What really made me happy was that there was plenty of seating around the river, one quibble though is more could have been provided around the show gardens. Seating allows me to take time out and rest. Remember what I said about energy being measured with spoons? Well, the further apart seating is the more likely I am going to run out and take a tumble.

RHS Chatsworth, Pennard

Floral Marquees for me can be a nightmare. Harking back to that 2004 show and it was a bog of plant sellers and plant buyers slipping everywhere. It was a narrow, confined space that wasn't suited for abled or disabled. In wet weather, Floral Marquees fill up fast and any pushing or jostling can cause damage to me. So I am always filled with trepidation when I enter one. How big will be the walkways? How good the paths? However, the RHS have got it right at Chatsworth. The wide walkways in their Floral Marquee continued the work on the outside paths, they covered the grass and were generous. This was in a particular evidence around the Pennard display, making their wonderful detailed packed display easy to navigate. Any wet patches that could have caused a slip had been barked - funnily enough I was touched by this small act. A number of growers in the Floral Marquee noted that I was struggling to walk and came out from behind their displays to talk with me. Many of them made helpful and pleasant suggestions for planting that I would find easier to grow in raised beds or in low maintenance situations. Hats off to the staff on W. Robinson & Son, W.S. Warmenhoven, Garth Cottage Herbs and East of Eden Nursery who did this. That really made a difference to my day.

Tomatoes, W Robinson & Son

This is a long way from my 2004 experience of flower shows and marquees. There were still some downsides though to the showground, the paths narrowed around the food market and this did put me off from going in there. This also occurred as we moved from the marquee and gardens into the shopping area. These areas felt cramped and it was here that I came across a few inaccessible shops that were cramped with goods or had steps going into them. These sellers should take a leaf from the wider ethos around the RHS show to be more accessible. From bales of straw to seating undercover, to regular water stations to fill your drink bottle up, the RHS have shown that they can take into account that the happy gardener is a gardener that can sit down too.


It was a pleasure to rise to the RHS challenge about disabled access at their showgrounds and to see that they have really put their money where their mouth is and provided not just a great, top quality show but an accessible show. You can see all the photos from RHS Chatsworth here. We'd like to thank the RHS for giving us the opportunity to visit the show and to all the companies and plant sellers that were there who helped us and spent time talking with us.


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