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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform