VROOM BLOOMS

Floristry is not dainty. It takes speed and stamina. Helen Chappell concludes her gardening professionals series

At five in the morning in the flower market, New Covent Garden, everything looks very fresh. The flowers - stacked tightly in their buckets - seem uniformly perfect. Porters and stall keepers barge their way down the aisles, flattening any dozy punters against the wall and swinging boxes of blooms overhead. Floral decorator Penny Snell is a blur of briskness, too - hurrying from stall to stall, running a gimlet eye over the merchandise. You'd never guess she got up at 2am this morning. "I need something for my demonstration class," she is muttering, scooping up a bundle of red dogwood stems. "Late tulips look good - roses and Michaelmas daisies out of season." A loaded trolley whistles past, missing her by inches.

Upstairs in the viewing gallery, we look down on the scene. The glowing banks of orchids, gerberas and strelitzias look like flower beds visited by manic bees. Florists buzz between them, prodding petals and writing cheques. The aroma of frying bacon suddenly fills the air. "To the cafe," announces Penny, "I'm ready for a cup of coffee."

Over a toasted cheese and bacon sandwich, Penny tells me she does this flower market run twice a week on Mondays and Thursdays, driving the fifty miles here from her home near Cobham in Surrey. Sometimes she's choosing the flowers for a weekend wedding, sometimes for the plate glass foyer of a city bank or art gallery. Her floral extravaganzas appear in boardrooms and bedrooms all over London and the Home Counties. She's notched up exhibitions at the Royal Academy and flower festivals at Brompton Oratory as well as decorating the sets for BBC costume dramas.

She didn't get where she is today by sitting down on the job, however. It's 6.15 am and she's fifteen minutes late already. I bolt down the rest of my sandwich, gulp half a mug of scalding coffee and we sprint for the door. Outside in the car park Penny is loading her hatchback with today's booty. As we accelerate down Nine Elms Lane, the scent from the jungle of greenery behind us is overwhelming.

"People think this is a glamorous job," she is saying, "but there's nothing glamorous about it except the end result." Dawn is just breaking as we speed through the deserted London streets, pulling up smartly outside an ornate facade in Lincoln's Inn Fields. A brass plate announces the Association of Certified Chartered Accountants. "They like bright colours."

A few minutes later, she has swung into action. Pulling on a check overall, she unravels a black dustbin sack and snatches up broom, dustpan and brush. Bundles of pink spotted Stargazer lilies and sprays of yew fit under each arm as she scuttles up the steps. She gives the office cleaning ladies a breezy wave as we enter the hushed marble hall, gleaming with brass and polished mahogany. "Bone dry, you see!" says Penny, grabbing a handful of last week's shrivelled display in an urn in the fireplace. "They don't seem to understand that cut flowers need topping up with water. They phone me up and say 'These flowers have wilted.' "

On the other hand, if they like something, they write her a proper letter. Kneeling on the floor, Penny is yanking out the dead leaves and stems and stabbing in fresh replacements. I turn my back to study a Latin inscription on the wall and when I turn back a stunning display is already half complete. "I like a natural look - nothing too arranged," she murmurs, oblivious to this instant beauty.

Just twenty minutes after we arrived, we are sweeping up the last petals from the floor on our way out. "It doesn't do to leave any mess to annoy the cleaners," she warns, heaving a tarpaulin full of dead plants into the back of the car. We set off again. The other people it doesn't do to annoy, she adds, are the formidable matrons who usually do the flowers for the churches she decorates. "They don't like you poaching on their turf. These are powerful women, you know." Such Alan Bennett characters are only outdone by the parents of the bride at some of Penny's weddings. One such couple announced they wanted everything to be brown and cream, including the flowers and the cake. When she tried to suggest a touch of yellow, the mother had a panic attack and shrieked: "If you say the word yellow again, I shall die!"

Penny had a strict and thorough training at Constance Spry 35 years ago and would not dream of displaying such prima donna behaviour herself. The customer is always right. Even the penny-pinching father who stored all Penny's blooms for the big day in a garage overnight, and turned off the heating (in February). Next morning, everything was frostbitten, dead and brown and had to be (expensively) replaced.

"You have to be even-tempered and put up with all sorts of people," she says, as we whisk past the Natural History Museum. "It's no use having an artistic temperament. I don't even like to call myself a flower arranger. It smacks of ladies snipping rosebuds and doing dainty things with chiffon and figurines. Not me at all." Anyone who sees floristry as a slightly precious, feminine career should catch her scrubbing her hand with bleach to remove grime and sap stains or nipping between the dustbins in a dark alley dragging a Christmas tree to decorate a hard-to-find office, heaving buckets of water up ladders or jumping into an open grave to pretty up the inside with floral swags for a funeral.

Or muttering a rude word under her breath as we arrive at the V & A to find nobody about yet to let us in. With practised speed she unloads her boxes and bags near the tradesmens' entrance, signs me in and explains our mission to a selection of granite-faced guards and officials. "Really quick today," she says. "Sometimes I bang on the door for ages." Striding down the hushed corridors and deserted galleries is an eerie experience. At 7.30am in the vast marble entrance hall, only the distant hum of an electric floor polisher breaks the silence. Penny disappears to the loo and reappears lugging a huge watering can. She sets to work dismantling - and rebuilding - an impressive six foot flower tower near the cash tills. Dustbin sacks fill up with dead twigs while the Greek urn gets a fresh head-dress of giant cerise lilies, and sprays of forsythia and rhododendron leaves from Penny's own garden. There is a satisfying crunching sound as she lops the stems off a bunch of blood red amaryllis blooms and pokes them in. The floor looks like the aftermath of a shoot-out in a florist's shop.

By twenty to nine, there is a gob-smackingly impressive shellburst of crimson and gold petals, the first thing today's punters will see when they burst in. Penny narrows her eyes and stands back. "Does it look OK?" she asks sceptically. You could say that (I do). Before my words are out there is a flurry of rustling, snapping and mysterious vegetable twangs. The broom is out, the black sacks are full, Penny is back in hyperdrive. Quarter to nine sees us outside on the pavement. There is bright sunlight now and the hum of traffic on the roads.

"Right," says Penny, consulting her watch, "back down the motorway and home by nine-thirty." Not to flop on a sofa with a cup of tea and recover, though. When she arrives, a dozen Home Counties housewives, keen gardeners and/or wannabe florists (even a church flower lady or two) will be waiting for her. From ten till three-thirty she's teaching one of her day courses on the latest trends in floral art. I can't take the pace. I wave her off, with a sigh of exhaustion. Hatchback full of jungle, buckets and true grit, she turns the corner and is gone.

Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
Arts and Entertainment
TV
News
Graham Norton said Irish broadcaster RTE’s decision to settle was ‘moronic’
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl
filmFirst look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month
TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel
film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
    Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

    What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

    Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
    The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

    Setting in motion the Internet of Things

    British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
    Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

    Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

    Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
    Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

    Cult competition The Moth goes global

    The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
    Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

    Pakistani women come out fighting

    Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
    Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

    Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

    The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
    LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

    Education: LGBT History Month

    Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
    11 best gel eyeliners

    Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

    Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

    After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot