I’m of the opinion that a city is best savoured slowly, from the street. And if possible, at night. Her finest views are unveiled when you’re standing beneath a building, looking up. Which is why most of my photos, on flipping through a 400+ scrapbook of London memories, the steely towers and the golden moonface of Big Ben, reveal themselves with looming angles.
And at night? Well, this is the time when the city is at its finest. Sparkling. Bejewelled with lights. The time when she drops her sleeve, bares a bit of shoulder. And best of all, quietened against the onslaught of tourists. Such in fact that my favourite memory of Venice, despite all its time-honoured canals and technicolour facades, is of a 90 minute ferry ride taken at night – and in err. A misjudged route carting me the wrong way around the island, transforming a 5 minute stop into 90 minutes of front-seated, star-strewn adventure. Ebbed by a spirited sense of c’est la vie, the wash of lights against darkened bridges and buildings, and the soft splash of street lamps on the water’s edge.
The other best way to enjoy a city is by foot. If time allows, avoid the London underground. It is, for a claustrophobic like me, a frightening place. Enjoyed once or twice for novelty, of course. But, if you can, walk. Have a street’s eye, first-person-perspective of the city. Its residential areas, its parks and cafes, its dog walkers and joggers and pram-yielding mothers. This gives you a real sense of it. Or else, take the Red Bus. Those are fun. And particularly satisfying post West End show, when you are buoyed by the power of story and song, but it is 11:30pm and you’d like to get home soon-ish, rather than take the long way round. Also not to be overlooked – a bike ride. A bike ride through Hyde Park, or across the Albert Bridge to work, is enough to fill you with a giddy sense of being alive. Book off the therapist for a week, I have reconnected with my inner child.
Oh, and don’t rush. If you don’t have to. As the cliché goes, enjoy the journey, not just the destination. Chances are the little coloured doors on your outbound amble might just be more memorable than the big gaudy gates of Buckingham Palace, where everyone is lining up for a selfie.
The next ones are particularly subjective. Always go into a book shop. And take the off-road when it comes to menu items. A good burger or pasta can be found almost anywhere. But a Taiwanese dessert – crushed ice topped high with taro and boba pearls and ivory coloured mochi cubes – is a rarer find when you live in a small Garden Route town. To this end I’m fond of telling people that the most delicious thing I’ve eaten (well, it’s up there) was a scorpion. Crispy, salty, a little oily – it could’ve given Lays a run for their money.
And the bookshops? Well here you can never go wrong. These are places to be protected at all costs. Havens for the imagination. Inclusive spaces offering worlds of wonder. And dreamscapes – if you find yourself imagining your own byline in a spotlighted shopfront.
The other subjective rule I have: always tip a busker. Music is food for the soul, and buskers fodder for the city. There is nothing like seeing someone’s creative passion laid bare – for our own scrutiny and entertainment – and this deserves the tip of the hat.
And then there are rules that apply for an international trade show. You need a balance of skills. Or a set of key ingredients, so to speak. Someone who knows their way around a drill. With a bit of muscle and a Pandora’s box of tools. Someone with a creative eye for putting together a stand. A sense for how to use a space effectively. And someone who is unafraid of strangers, with a sense for story. Maybe someone who has a sprinkling of a few foreign languages. At least this was how I justified earning my keep at the 2023 Chelsea Flower Show.
We started building our stand on May 17th. The four days that followed were a combination of the aforementioned ingredients: a bit of muscle, some steady sawing, some creative flair, and a fair amount of folding… Foreign languages need not apply here – except for, perhaps, trying to decipher an IKEA manual. (That being said, ‘you alright, mate?’ is a generous, all-encompassing British greeting that may help you to secure a ladder from a neighbouring stand).
Once the bones were set up, we played with ways to incorporate a floral element. As all Mungo textiles are woven with 100% natural fibres, it seemed fitting to include our fibres – so we (Dax) got to work rigging up a cotton installation, complemented by baskets of dried flax (the fibre from which linen originates). A few well-placed bunches of fresh flowers were added, attracting the occasional chubby bumblebee.
After 4 days of build, several cheese and pickle sandwiches (another prerequisite for a London visit), a bit of banter and several frighteningly expensive coffees later, we were done.
On Monday the show would begin.
The RHS Chelsea Flower show has come to be known as the greatest flower show on earth. Running since 1913, it amasses large crowds every year with its five-day event. Boasting some of the most inspiring and innovative gardens and floral displays.
2023’s show put emphasis on restorative gardening – spotlighting ways in which gardening can positively contribute to our personal health and wellness, as well as that of the natural environment. Alongside incredible exhibits of prize tulips, daffodils, roses, bonsais, succulents and more, there were 36 display gardens. Each of these was intricately designed, and thoughtfully symbolic – playing on themes of nostalgia, addressing needs of inclusivity and accessibility, and showcasing the power of green spaces to provide healing. There were gardens inspired by the importance of mental wellbeing, a working kitchen garden with a ‘plot-to-plate’ approach, a garden celebrating the Coronation of King Charles and another highlighting the humble but invaluable garden insect, to name a few.
A personal favourite, awarded gold at the show, was the ‘Biophilic Garden Otsu – Hanare’, designed by Kazuyuki Ishihara. Showcasing a traditional Japanese ‘hanare’ – a small outhouse considered a place of healing, this garden was inspired by a love of nature, pleasantly complemented by the soft sound of a waterfall.
Another was ocean photographer and designer, Zena Holloway‘s ‘Root Dress’ – a biodegradable wedding dress made entirely of wheatgrass. A design inspired by the plastic crisis in our oceans, and driven by a need to explore innovative and sustainable alternatives.
As the show unfolded, there were more learnings to be had.
Firstly, don’t underestimate how often you’ll hear Afrikaans. Or at least, a South African accent. In addition to sharing the story of Mungo and our mill to newcomers, it was heartening to connect with locals and expats, or to hear the occasional, ‘Wow, Mungo!’ from passersby. The amount of connections to Plettenberg Bay, home of our full operation, was quite astounding.
There was plenty more ‘South African-ness’ around the show, with Babylonstoren as the sponsors of the wine of Chelsea – and sister to the official sponsor, the Newt in Somerset. Not to mention, South Africa took home gold – awarded the winning Plant of the Year for the ‘Black Jack’ – a long-flowering purple Agapanthus bred by De Wet Plant Breeders in Hartbeespoort.
Some other ‘do’s for best enjoying a city (or a trade show) – wear comfortable shoes. This cannot be overstated. Do not buy a new pair of leather shoes the week before, keep them in the box so that they are ‘fresh and clean’ for the show, and then hobble around the stand ruing your idiocy. Here function proceeds form.
Do dress for the weather. And do not trust a Brit’s gauge of this. While temperatures may have soared over recent summers, an occasion to don a pair of shorts and a Panama hat was, still, ‘coat weather’ by South African standards. The sun may have been out, but the wind? Icy.
Speaking of summer hats. Read up on trends or feasible side hustles beforehand. Because…
On our back wall we had a display of three of our boldest and brightest flat weave towels. Each topped with a straw hat – a fitting nod to the onset of beachbound days. And oh did those hats draw a crowd. Countless showgoers would come onto our stand, don one of the hats, model it around to approving glances from their friends, only to be dismayed that they weren’t, unfortunately, for sale. Word on the street was that famous UK horticulturist and TV personality, Monty Don, had sported one such hat on a recent show – sparking a wave of interest and a surge in Google search terms. Lamentably, legend has it, said hat was later eaten by his dog. But interestingly enough was purchased in South Africa.
Another – do be inquisitive. Or at least, go in search of wine. Because a trip to the Babylonstoren stand led to an opportune encounter. After enquiring where the Kirstenbosch garden was (assuming there’d be some clued-up fellow Saffers there), I turned around to find myself in a sea of long lenses. ‘Good timing’, said the Babylonstoren trader, Kate is just about to arrive…
Despite the chill, and poor shoe choice, London in the spring is a pleasant time. Green, (sometimes) sunlit and overall ebbed by a cheery feel from the city goers, who seem revived by the promise of summer. Perhaps with an eye out for a quick-drying towel that makes the perfect travel companion for a trip to Spain or Greece…
In the end, when it’s all said and done, there’s perhaps one more moment of reflection to be had. Take in your last looks, savour the scenes; the brownstones you love so much, the river, the old oaks, the last lofty skyscraper. Forget about the R170 you spent on a bubble tea.
As you catch the plane home, exhausted but invigorated by all you have seen and done, remember this. How lucky you are. To be here. To see. To explore. To travel.
And to work at a place that’ll take you along for the (bike) ride.