A royal treat in Surrey

One good thing about attending a flower show overseas is that you're less tempted to bring home a birdbath.

Sadly, you also have to swear off buying any flowers -thanks to those pesky customs laws.

Which leaves just looking.

At the annual Hampton Court Palace Flower Show -the largest in the world, according to organizers - that's not such a bad thing. Each summer it takes place on the vast grounds of the famous palace near London, in the spot where Henry VIII once hunted deer.

Though Henry would have drooled over some of the show's offerings -carnivorous plants, electric hedge cutters -it's the wide open space and wide selection that attracts most people every July.

The Hampton Court show is not only big (25 acres), but easier to navigate than its smaller but more elite sibling, the 88-year-old Chelsea Flower Show, held in London in May. Chelsea attracts gardeners from around the world, and many tour operators schedule their English garden tours for the same time.

Just over a decade old, the Hampton show is a more casual affair that appeals to amateur gardeners looking for ideas.

A stroll through the circus-size tents housing everything from crafts to rain-forest plants is a must. No British flower show would be complete without roses - England's favorite flower, and the one preferred by Prime Minister Tony Blair (his wife, Cherie, is a freesia fan). Specially bred varieties, like Penny Lane and McCartney roses are around every corner.

Exhibitors start preparing the elaborate outdoor garden displays a few weeks before the show. Sometimes the results are so popular you have to wait in line to see them. At the 2000 show, "Don Quixote's Backyard," inspired by a Spanish courtyard garden, drew oohs and aahs from attendees.

Devoted gardeners come for the variety of plants and the breathing room.

"The good thing is there's more space to walk around than at Chelsea. That's a big plus," says Colin Harvey, a Kent resident who is attending with his wife, Linda.

Though it's unlikely that anyone would need a topiary of Big Ben, you can find it here. Fish and chips are widely available, as well, and many people bring picnic lunches and dine on the banks of the long pond that divides the show.

Bringing in food isn't a bad idea, considering the price of a ticket (up to $30) plus the cost of the train ride from London.

Clive May, a railway fitter from Reading, says his daughter treated him to the outing. He's seeing designs and accouteraments that he plans to go home and copy in his own garden.

In the end, if you grow tired of the throngs of people and garden gadgets, there's always strolling through the palace grounds and gardens, where neatly cut grass and beds of flowers beckon -and there's not a tempting birdbath in sight.

If you go: In 2001, the flower show will be held July 3 to 8. For more information, visit the Royal Horticultural Society website, www.rhs.org.uk.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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