I believe that garden centres are an invention of the devil, but incredibly sexy at the same time - yes really! They are more addictive than crack-cocaine, as financially ruinous as an out-of-control gambling habit and if you visit these dens of iniquity during the working week when you are holidaying in Gloucestershire, the chances are that you will find the colour beige strangely attractive and be tempted to buy a T shirt that proclaim “Old Guys Do It Slower.”
For the record: in the month or so of our holiday so far, I have visited three different garden centres about ten times in total; I think I may need help don’t you? There is something quintessentially English about garden centres and those who inhabit them. Apart from the ghostly grey figures pottering about the place prodding plants and poking about in dark corners for unlikely bargains, there is also another breed to be seen - these being posh middle-aged ladies with weathered faces, formidably posh voices, and a no nonsense approach to both plants of all descriptions and particularly staff - “Come here young man and tell me what this is supposed to be.”
These women were of the type that would have built empires across the globe and apart from being terrifying in every way, I find them a deeply reassuring presence. As I mooched about the place trying to memorise the names of various plants as I knew I would be tested on this when we should arrive back at our digs, I fell into conversation with a woman who was in charge of the garden sheds department.
Well, not quite sheds at all really in the strictest sense of that word, more conservatories or small summer houses that have become rather fashionable since the onset of Covid and people’s understandable need to put distance between them and their loved ones. Mind you, although I did wince somewhat because the sales lady was keen as mustard and rather attractive into the bargain, I may have given her the impression I was quite willing to pay £20,000 for a rather upmarket shed. However as luck would have it I was pulled away from potential foolishness by a certain woman I know, who remarked icily - “I bet she lies awake at night dreaming of old blokes who like sheds….”
What we have in English garden centres is a sort of hyper-polite experience; it’s as if the staff had been sent on a customer service course to the United States, but without the accompanying oozing insincerity. They also open on a Sunday unlike their cousins in Majorca who seem to find the usual correlation between Sunday’s and garden centres difficult to grasp. Anyway, smiley young people come up to you and ask without any prompting - “Can I help you see sir? Be sure to come and find me if you need anything.” As I’m not used to this level of service, unfortunately I wonder if the young chap in question is taking the p*** - or alternatively, just being ironic.
Whatever my cynical first reaction is to their helpfulness, it is pretty obvious that these members of staff enjoy their work and appear to like talking to people who like gardens and gardening. However, genuine or not, this feeling of discreet familiarity really does make people like me part with their cash in a ‘really not like me’ fashion. For instance, so overwhelmed was I by the general bonhomie on one of my visits that I purchased a number of additional items in that extremely pricey shop area by the check-out tills.
In total I bought one of the aforementioned T shirts about old guys doing it slower, a rather cute cat named Colin, manufactured in coloured tin and then soldered together - and finally, be still my beating heart, a state-of-the-art Spear & Jackson stainless steel trowel that I get out every know and again without warning just to admire it. Garden centres do that to you.