Sally Hambleton, the secret life of flowers lifestyle
It smells like London in spring, but it’s autumn and we’re in Madrid. In the Prosperidad district, to be precise. In this little square, if you follow the trail, you will see four shops with black and white striped awnings, some interiors painted in a bluish green that also recalls England and suddenly boxes, drawers, crowns, scissors, loops… signs that there has been a party here. And it’s the same every morning.
When you reach the fourth entrance with its awning, she opens the door to us in person, with her apron and long scarf. Already hard at work.
Let’s talk about flowers:
Question: Do you have a favourite flower?
Answer: Hydrangeas, but now I have a bit of a crush on my dahlias. They’re difficult to get because they don’t travel well, but I’m crazy about them. It’s incredible that nature can do this. Did you know that it’s the national flower of Mexico and that it was brought to Europe by the Spanish in 1600?
A: I love them, but I always look for a special colour.
Q: And oleanders?
A: I don’t like them individually, but I love to see a lot of them in a flower bed.
Q: Plants or cut flowers?
A: That’s a big question! I’m a frustrated gardener and I became a florist because I couldn’t have a garden. Now I have a little one in pots. Gardens are my great love.
This was not always the case. Sally Hambleton is a very unusual florist who has been in the world of arrangements, events and commissions for 15 years. She has an Anglo-Spanish background and studied interior design. In the last year of her degree, she worked as an au pair, looking after the children of the CEO of an English bank, and was offered a job as messenger, because they needed someone who had good English. “They offered to pay for me to do a master’s degree in portfolio management and, as I ‘ve always been very responsible, I said yes.”
She spent 12 months doing a master’s degree that scared her; she didn’t even know what an interest rate was. “And that led me to work in the stock market for 10 years. I didn’t like it at all, but it became a well-paid job.” It was the financial boom of the 1990s, when thousands of stockbrokers started businesses and a lot of foreign banks bought investment funds in Spain. “Do you remember when bricklayers were becoming builders? Well, I’m an interior decorator who became a portfolio manager.” I was there for 10 years but, as crises are foreseen in the stock exchange, those who were seen to be performing badly began to disappear.” And they fired me. It was the first time in my life that I had been told openly that they didn’t want me. It was a hard blow but to tell the truth it didn’t last long, because it was also the first time in my adult life that I found myself with time to spare and money from my compensation.”
She decided that the most intelligent move was give herself a treat and do a flower course in London with Kenneth Turner, “a floral designer who fascinated me. I treasured his books and, through an aunt of mine, I found out about those workshops that he was organising. They focused on enjoying flowers holistically and then delving into the subject. When I finished the four-day course, my head was spinning.
I remember it as a delight for the senses. The house in Bond Street, surrounded by a unique smell, with incredible candles, special flowers, and a lovely meal they prepared and the inevitable tea with sandwiches and scones was pure pleasure.”
“I started with flower arrangements at small events working from my home, but it got too big for me and after 6 months I had to move to my first business premises”
On her return, she decided to set up a flower shop that was different in Madrid. She had difficulty finding the varieties she liked. It was the early 2000s and there were only two good florists who had the usual flowers. “I got my act together and contacted wholesalers. I started with flower arrangements at small events working from my home, but it got too big for me and after 6 months I had to move to my first business premises, a unit under my house that had been left empty. I was terrified when I opened in Gabriel Lobo, but we’re still there, and now there are 14 of us.”
She decided to offer varieties that were not found in Spain. She began to buy from the Netherlands, “although, because of the pandemic, I’ve changed radically and I now order over 50% from national producers. They’re delighted because you design their garden with your orders and they grow other varieties that they didn’t know. Sometimes I even send them to a ditch to pick wild flowers and they freak out, but that’s what I want: km 0 and seasonal produce, like food.”
“I prefer to take advantage of the great creators in my country”
Neither should we forget that she revolutionised the world of recipients for flowers. Going from the bouquet of cut flowers to carefully chosen containers such as a beautiful Spanish earthenware jug, her famous hatbox, rattan ice buckets and even flower bags that give such a special touch.
She is starting to design with local Spanish artisans, because she firmly believes that now, more than ever, we have to help each other. “And in the Levante area (now that we are talking about the Porcelanosa Group) there are ceramics and clay that comes from the earth. That’s why all these ceramic factories are there; I’ve seen them for myself. The earth is pure clay and then there are the basket makers. Now they come from China but we have some amazing basket makers ourselves. And glass from the La Granja factory, who we’re currently in discussions with. We want to differentiate ourselves in everything, but also improve the product. I prefer to take advantage of the great creators in my country; I’ll be a drop in that ocean and then others can follow me.”
Sally has completed several projects this year: the natural flower selection boxes, the SH flower garden and SH Home & Garden. In 2019 they had invested and were prepared to increase internet traffic, making the website an ultra-powerful machine that could meet different demands. And it has worked.
The national flower selection boxes were launched on Mother’s Day, 2 May, in full lockdown. “They’ve been very successful. It’s a flower box sent to your home via the website, with varieties that have to be very carefully selected. Everything is 100% national, including the wrapping, tissue paper or sellotape. We change according to the season and we now have chrysanthemums. At Christmas, we’ll change the varieties and add berries.”
“Everything is 100% national, including the wrapping, tissue paper or sellotape”
During the lockdown, she also designed a flower garden working with the Los Confites estate in La Vera, with Dutch bulbs and rootstocks; together, they planted Sally Hambleton’s Flower Garden. “These are the first pure km 0 plants. They have cultivated the garden because I haven’t been able to go.” She has also added a small accessory decoration section called SH Home & Garden. In it, her Instagram followers (she is a great social media user) ask her about her discoveries. “I have to recognise that my mother has intervened, because she loves the small table antiques that we always bring back from England.”
Her benchmark is those small English shops and flower markets. The taste for flowers and their varieties and the art the English have when it comes to putting a natural bouquet together. “Although there are more and more beautiful shops, we still arouse curiosity.” She believes she is doing nothing more than what she has seen done in shops in England and adapting it. “I get ideas from all of them, but my husband says that market studies are for me to do. If I like doing it, good, and if not, it doesn’t matter. My trends are the 4 seasons of the year and that’s what I use. I would never use peonies in December, because nature doesn’t give them.”
She recognises that it is a complicated business in which time matters. They give me some flowers now and I have to have them ready in two hours, sent to any part of Madrid or Spain. Flowers are expensive, they die and you need a lot of specialised labour. Here, there would be a lot to do in Vocational Training, because a florist needs to know how to touch and handle these flowers.”
“My trends are the 4 seasons of the year and that’s what I use”
Sally believes this Christmas will be behind closed doors. “We think we’re very hospitable, but we don’t invite people home. Now, the department stores are selling pure decoration, because we’ve found that our houses aren’t pleasant or comfortable. I encourage everyone to go out to the countryside and pick up branches to make table decorations, Advent wreaths, ornaments and lots of other craft objects.”
Every year, the three generations (Sally, her mother and her daughter) travel to the South of England and visit Sussex and Brighton. It is their secret journey, where grandmother and mother show granddaughter and daughter their country with its landscapes and all their own places, their secret corners. And Sally’s grandparents’ house, with its ponds and swans, where she spent such happy summers.