The Chelsea Fringe Festival began one morning in the week of Chelsea Flower Show, when garden writer Tim Richardson thought it up while lying in bed. The idea was for an alternative gardens festival to run concurrently with the flower show, and for two weeks afterwards.
The Fringe was to be based not only in Chelsea, but all over London, and in other cities nationwide and internationally. The idea was to celebrate all the community and guerilla gardening going on, and also to encourage links between gardens and art, literature, music, cookery, history, crafts, and ecology. The Chelsea Fringe is a true fringe festival – based on the Edinburgh model – in that nothing is commissioned or curated: if it’s on topic, legal and interesting, it can go in the Fringe, no matter how outlandish or odd it may seem.
The first year of the Fringe saw 100 events. In the second and third years, this grew to around 250 events annually in London and abroad – including more than 70 events in Vienna in 2014. Chelsea Fringe 2015 and 2016 featured new satellite cities including Nagoya and Fukuoka in Japan; in Italy there were Brescia, Bergamo, Florence, Milan and Etna in Sicily; Ljubljana in Slovenia; Melbourne, Australia; and half a dozen British locations, including Brighton, Bristol, Cambridge and Aberdeenshire. It is now very much a part of the gardening calendar, but remains fiercely independent of large horticultural organisations, and corporate or civic patronage.
The Chelsea Fringe is unsponsored, unfunded, unbranded and wholly independent, with no medals or judging committees. It relies entirely on volunteer efforts and survives on its registration fees (£30 each for community gardens).
Our Fifth Anniversary Chelsea Fringe in 2016 was one of the richest and most idiosyncratic yet, as more and more groups understand the quirky ethos and the need to engage people’s imaginations rather than ‘put on a show’.
At the Fringe the mantra is: It’s all about the gardeners, not the gardens.