FLOWER power personified, Darlington Chrysanthemum and Dahlia Society is celebrating its 75th anniversary. Twice they were champions of Great Britain, 1973 and 1974, still they flourish – bloom, no doubt.
It’s a remarkable achievement, grown from seed, and requires two meetings in order to do justice to their longevity.
The first, by way of hardy annual, is in the pub. The second, a couple of days later, involves a sun-blessed tour of the tranquil allotments that few might imagine lie within half a mile of the town centre.
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It’s there that we meet Geoff Gardener, possibly the best known grower of all – and certainly the most aptly named.
“It’s like intensive care, you have to look after them constantly,” he says. “Don’t let anyone tell you it’s a hobby. It’s not, it’s an absolute obsession.
JOHN WISE and Steve Salmon are in the pub. They talk about getting the bug but only, of course, metaphorically.
Horticulturally it’s the last thing on earth that they want.
Since he’s a keen angler. too – “my wife isn’t just a flowers widow, she’s a fishing widow, as well” – Mr Salmon may also be considered appropriately named. Then there was the great Bill Florentine.
Bless them, they’ve even produced a historical crib sheet which talks incorrigibly of seeds and roots, but also of very real growth.
At first, it was just the Chrysanthemum Society, formed after a chance remark over a snooker game in the Hope Walker Institute in North Road.
Hope Walker is thought to have been a member of the Walker Wilson newspaper wholesaling family.
Held in the institute’s billiards hall, the first show attracted 30 entries, subs a shilling a month.
Quickly it outgrew its home.
They used a couple of schools, moved to the affectionately remembered Baths Hall, began early and late shows built a show garden in the town centre.
In the 1970s, goodness knows, there was even a Miss Chrysanthemum beauty contest hosted by the late Rod Griffith of Tyne Tees Television. Maybe they even found a photograph of that one; maybe it was a slightly different age.
They’re grand lads. “We don’t have a problem with enthusiasm and we don’t have a problem with finance,” says John Wise. “Our problem is that the youngest member is 44 and that all of us are getting older.”
Albert Hawman, the most venerable of them all, had a new flower named after him to mark his 100th birthday a couple of years ago.
They recall taking flowers down to London on the overnight train, though the car later proved more effective.
“The flowers were fresh, but the drivers were absolutely knackered,” says Steve.
They recall getting lost on the way to Westminster Hall, being directed the wrong way through Smithfield Market, finding that the traffic warden was an understanding sort from Darlington.
“It’s totally consuming at the top level,” says John. “Everyone thinks there’s a magic potion, but there’s not. It’s just about doing everything at the right time. The driving force is that everyone wants somewhere to show their flowers – there’s no point in growing them and having nowhere to show them – but it keeps you fit both physically and mentally. You never stop thinking about your flowers. You’re talking six or seven days a week. I don’t know how I ever found time to work.”
JUST three days remain before the season’s first show when we head to the green, green gardens in the Bank Top area of town.
They look magnificent, beauties in the eye of the beholder and no matter that the beholder is the optical equivalent of greenfly.
Geoff Gardener’s there, Steve Salmon’s had a look over, 84-yearold Dave Kilcran has paper bags over his dahlia heads – an accepted tactic. Dave was part of the British championship side in threw 1970s.
“It was fantastic,” he recalls. “The first time no one thought we’d do it, not a little place like Darlington.”
It’s fascinating. They’re all mates, good mates most of them, but there’s just 72 hours to the show in St Cuthbert’s church hall and it’s impossible not to suppose that there’s gamesmanship afoot.
They’re carefully eyeing the opposition, talking their own chances down, essaying a sort of floral Alex Ferguson.
Even on show day there’s tactical benching, they reckon. “You’d be surprised,” says Steve, and no doubt it’s the case.
Geoff Gardener, winner of one section for 20 of the last 21 years, is still the man to beat. “There’s plenty have a chance,” he insists.
Steve Salmon accepts that it’s very competitive. “You don’t fall out about it, but an awful lot of work goes into it, so of course you want to win. You might get a bit of respite between September and November, but really it’s four or five hours a day. |It’s quite stressful, really.” There are novice, intermediate and “big league” classes. What there isn’t is big money. A class winner might pick up £3, something a bit better, a fiver. There are 60 trophies, though.
“No one does it for the money,” says John. “I can tell you now I’ve paid £300 for compost and then there’s the heating and all the other costs. It’s about lifting that cup, holding that medal.
“I’ve been married to Janet for 44 years and she knows not to talk to me when I’m cutting flowers, not unless I speak to her first.”
He also grows daffodils. “It keeps me out of bother in the spring,” he says.
Most have built their own sheds and greenhouses, one of them known as the Mound Stand with a nod to cricket, and to Lord’s.
Steve Salmon’s allotments are up at the other end of town, behind the West Cemetery, land still earmarked by the necropolis. He eyes his blooms critically, supposes – since his pal John Wise is also in attendance – that they’ve little chance on the Saturday.
Members will have arrived from all over the North-East. “There’ll be some quality stuff,” says Steve.
“Mind, this is Darlington. There always is.”
- The society’s “early” show is at Bondgate Methodist Church Hall, in Darlington, on Saturday, September 13, the “late” show at the same venue on November 8. Members of the public are very welcome from 1pm. Society secretary Kelvin Vincent is on 01325-317770. Still they support many local charities; membership’s still only £5 a year.