Historical curvilinear glasshouse restored at Quarry Bank

A rare example of a 19th century curvilinear glasshouse has been restored at the National Trust's Quarry Bank in Cheshire after a year-long restoration project.

The restored glasshouse. Image: Nick King
The restored glasshouse. Image: Nick King

The glasshouse has a new biomass boiler which will enable gardeners to heat sections of the glasshouse so that exotic plants such as orchids and palms along with fruits including grapes and peaches can once again be grown at the site. Its restoration is part of a four-year, £9.4 million project to transform Quarry Bank and reflect its position as a rare survival of a complete industrial community.

The 1820s glasshouse was built to supply the owners of Quarry Bank mill, the Greg family, with tender fruit of the time, such as grapes and peaches. Its innovative design and use of modern technology sent a clear message to guests about the Gregs’ financial success and position in society.

Although the National Trust (NT) acquired the 18th century cotton mill in 1939, it was only in 2010 that the kitchen garden also came under its care. The jewel in the crown of this walled garden was the severely damaged cast iron-framed curvilinear glasshouse, a name given to the structure because of its rare curved roof. 

Quarry Bank general manager Eleanor Underhill said: "We knew that we had something special here and that hidden under years of decay and old corrugated sheeting was a remarkable glasshouse which had stood derelict for many years.

"We carried out archaeological, structural and historic research into the building which revealed that it is one of the earliest curvilinear hot houses in the country. We knew then that we had to save it."

Results from the survey along with photographs, letters, diaries, maps and garden plant orders from Quarry Bank’s extensive archives, provided the team with an opportunity to accurately restore the glasshouse to its former glory and understand more about the purpose of its design.

This high roof allowed for the cultivation of palms and other large exotic specimens, which had newly arrived in the country via the exploits of plant hunters travelling the world. Carefully controlled heating conditions allowed the gardening team to grow delicate fruits for the mill’s owners, the Greg family. Keeping these fragile plants alive required constant tending and clever technology. Boys as young as nine were charged with keeping the glasshouse’s boiler working 24 hours a day.

In autumn 2015 the damaged cast iron frame was carefully dismantled before being taken to a workshop where, over six months, engineers from Dorothea Restorations carried out painstaking work to make repairs and identify missing pieces of the structure.

On site, Armitage Construction repaired the brick and stone walls for the return of the frame and the chimneys were rebuilt.

Glass had to be mouth-blown into half a metre long cylinders, which were then cut in half to create more than 7,500 panes of glass.

Head gardener Sarah Witts said: "Seeing the glasshouse restored to its former glory is a real delight. It is such a unique structure and tells us a lot about the lives of the Greg family and the luxuries they would have enjoyed compared with the mill workers."

The NT has also restored the adjoining back sheds that were once the potting area for the estate’s gardeners which they will use as an interactive museum to tell stories about the lives of the estate’s gardeners.

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