The modernisation of of Little Priory by Griffin Glasshouses - reviewed

The modernisation of the lean-to at Little Priory in Surrey had to respect its heritage, Sally Drury reports.

Little Priory oozes history and is dominated by a massive walled garden that supports a 23m-long lean-to greenhouse - image: HW
Little Priory oozes history and is dominated by a massive walled garden that supports a 23m-long lean-to greenhouse - image: HW

Reviewer: Liz Ramsey, owner, Little Priory, Surrey

Little Priory, a five-acre property in the heart of Surrey countryside, has belonged to Richard and Liz Ramsay since 1988.

Dating back to Victorian times, but now with much modern influence, the garden at Little Priory today comprises flower garden, beds and borders, wild flower and geranium meadows, fine trees and shrubs plus a large pond. Dominating the site is a massive walled garden stocked with, among other things, a variety of fruit trees. Stroll around this garden and you can feel it oozing history at every turn.

Typical of its age, the Victorian walled garden has always supported a long lean-to greenhouse. Last year, around 140 years old and having endured many storms, the 23m-long structure was close to collapse. The Ramsays faced a dilemma. Should they try to repair it once more, prop it up again for another decade or replace it? And if so, with what should it be replaced?

In this review, we follow the decision-making processes and the design and construction of a modern lean-to as the Ramsays seek to maintain the atmosphere of Little Priory.

GRIFFIN GLASSHOUSES

Garden designer Liz Ramsay keeps a well-stocked and tidy greenhouse, one that many a professional gardener would be proud to own. In the three compartments of the light and airy lean-to there are figs, peaches, kiwi fruit and grapes along with tomatoes, cucumbers, pot plants and a propagation area. But that was not the case 12 months ago.

The original lean-to was Victorian and of timber construction. It had been repaired several times over the years but had finally reached the point where, particularly with safety being an issue, the wisdom of trying to save it became questionable. The decision had to be made. Should the greenhouse be abandoned to collapse or should it be replaced? The history surrounding Little Priory cannot be ignored and Liz Ramsay, in the course of research, has obtained notices of sales along with records detailing the gardeners occupying the cottage.

The site dates back to Victorian times, when Henry Edmund Gurney, managing director at city firm Overend Gurney & Co, bought what conveyance papers of 1854 called "a recently erected mansion house and a farm and land called Hungerford, otherwise Priory Farm".

What we see today as Little Priory was built as two cottages - one for the head gardener at the west end and one for laundry workers at the other. It was not until after the Second World War that the two cottages were converted to a single dwelling and became known as Little Priory.

The walled garden, complete with south-facing lean-to greenhouse, was begun in 1856, but only 10 years later Gurney and his banking firm went bust. In November 1866, the whole estate was put on the market. Sale documents of the time describe the "excellent mansion", which today is a hotel and provides a hillside focal point from the Ramsays' garden.

Of the garden, the sale papers describe: "Extensive kitchen garden, surrounded on three sides by lofty walls clothed with the choicest fruit trees. Ranges of hot houses and vineries, peach house and grapery, each 75ft in length, ornamental fountain, outer garden frame ground, melon and cucumber pits, a gardener's cottage, a capital laundry with wash house, cellar and three rooms for laundry maids."

In 1870, Joshua Fielden MP purchased the estate in its entirety and set about a huge building programme. Along with a largely redeveloped mansion, new gardens surrounding the great house were designed - possibly by Edward Kemp - and around this time the walls of the kitchen garden were extended.

Metal plant labels found by the Ramsays indicate the planting of fruit, including the pear Louis Bonne of Jersey planted in 1878 and a Sea Eagle Peach planted in 1879.

The First World War, as in so many cases, saw the demise of the estate due in part to a shortage of cheap labour. Sales particulars of 1920 show the Fielden family selling: "Walled in gardens embracing the most productive fruit, vegetable and flower divisions. Great care has been taken in the proper training of beautiful wall fruit as well as the grape vines, peach trees etc under glass.

"The houses include long triple range of lean-to glasshouses devoted to two vineries and rosery, a triple-span roof building of two carnation and one orchid divisions, lean-to double peach house and three division forcing house and several long ranges of brick forcing pits. The above houses are heated by hot water pipes and coils from the boilers in stoke holes." The estate was sold in lots, so separating Little Priory.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Little Priory was run as a market garden. Today the site is very much a private garden but the character of the Victorian era remains to be seen and felt. In the walled garden there is a circular sunken pond or dipping pond - perhaps the site of the fountain described in the sale notices of 1866.

Entry through a doorway in one of the walls leads to the wall rooms. Here at one end, in the dark and cool interior, are the shelf trays for mushroom production. On a wall nearby, a faded and torn poster announces the dates of an early RHS flower show. Although there are modern elements, you cannot look at Little Priory garden without seeing history. Against this background, the Ramsays had to decide what to do with the old lean-to.

After much discussion, and no doubt some soul-searching, the Ramsays decided that replacing the structure was the better option. And so to dilemma number two - replace it with what?

"We were unsure whether to go for a traditional timber structure or new technology," explains Liz. She knew she wanted a glasshouse that would give the same feel as the old one and be sympathetic with the surroundings.

The Ramsays undertook research, asked various parties for advice and requested three quotes. Finally, it was decided to build the new greenhouse using modern materials that would not rot.

That is not entirely inappropriate. It could even be viewed as carrying on a Victorian tradition. After all, the Victorians were arguably the greatest modernisers in the history of mankind. "I think the Victorians would approve. They were in favour of progress," Liz ponders.

The replacement of the lean-to was undertaken by Griffin Glasshouses of Ropley, Hampshire - a small family firm run by the daughter of the founder and employing three members of the family. "Other employees are almost family, if you know what I mean," says Griffin technical director Paul Smith. He is the nephew of the founder and cousin of the managing director.

Griffin Glasshouses received the order for the new build in October 2009. Its remit was to make the new house in a sympathetic style with modern construction methods and materials. That meant galvanised steel underframe and powder-coated aluminium.

The layout of the 23m-long greenhouse, with its three divisions or sub-compartments, was retained. So too was the original brick base wall, complete with ventilation arches. Having removed the old house - a process that took a week-and-a-half at the end of October 2009 - work began to repair the base wall before the winter set in.

For the designer Smith, the head-scratching work began when trying to accommodate a not insignificant fall across the site - 1m across the length of 23m. "That was the fun bit for me," he recalls. "It's not the most severe fall I have worked with, but it did present its fair share of headaches."

Smith had two options. He could ignore the fall in the brickwork and try to make the greenhouse vertical, plumbing it all the way along. But that would mean every sheet of glass would be a parallelogram and would need to be sized and cut individually. Instead, he opted to keep the greenhouse at right angles to the brick base wall. In effect, the greenhouse leans from left to right, but the gables are plumbed perpendicular. Odd little tapered sheets of glass were fitted at each end.

"We took the whole building squared to the front wall so that we only had the ends to worry about rather than the whole building requiring odd-shaped sheets of glass," Smith confirms.

Unlike timber, there is little that can be done to alter steel once it is on site. This meant the manufacturing of the glasshouse at the Griffin factory had to be accurate. Standard horticultural glass was used, with the odd shapes for the gables being cut to fit on site.

Along with the brick base, one other part of the original greenhouse survived. The steel beams of the old house, being in good condition, are used by Liz to support the vines, figs and kiwi fruits. Made of metal and set into the timber, these beams were originally a semi-part of the structure.

Smith explains how they were utilised in the new house: "We attached them to our metal structure so that any of the weight of plants is transferred to the main steel frame and dispersed down to the ground rather than relying on the wall at the rear or front to take a lot of the weight. There is a little bit of weight transfer to the walls but most of the structure directs the weight straight into the footings. It means, in effect, that the greenhouse is standing next to the wall and not leaning on it."

Ventilation in the old Victorian house was via the arched holes in the brick work and with sliding top sashes in the roof, something Smith had not seen before. Ventilation of the new house is a considerable improvement and employs 1.2m-deep roof vents running the length of the greenhouse but in three separate sections.

At the moment, all three operate simultaneously off a single motor and thermostat supplied by Electroflora. This leaves room for development in the future. "If she wanted at a later date, Liz could put a motor in each of the three sections and split the ventilation as required in each compartment," Smith explains.

This is a south-facing lean-to, so to supplement the ventilation further there are side opening vents working off individual Bayliss units. The arched holes in the lower wall add a nice touch to the appearance of the overall structure and augment further ventilation.

As a reminder of the past, the winding gear of the original house's ventilators has been left on the rear wall. To aid with wise water use, rainwater is collected from the roof and challenged through pipes to collection tanks positioned in each of the three compartments.

Construction took four-and-a-half weeks, usually with just two men working on site at any one time. Logistically, there was one other difficulty at Little Priory. With no access to the walled garden from the road, all the glass had to be unloaded and carried several hundred yards.

As you walk across the walled garden towards the new greenhouse, it is easy to spot the "lean" needed to negotiate the fall of the ground. Once inside, however, even on a drizzly July day, the environment feels healthy. It is neither too hot, too cool nor too humid. Light levels are boosted by the white structure and by the whitewashed rear wall.

If any evidence of the success of this house were needed, it is clearly visible in the figs and peaches that are currently thriving there. Former gardeners Walter Morgan (1871), Henry Titchner (1881) and John Moffatt (1891) would surely admire the structure and the crops growing therein.

It is also clear from Liz's expression and tone of voice that she is both delighted with and proud of her new glasshouse. Although she is not prepared to say how much it cost, she is very quick to reassure us that it is "definitely value for money".

Griffin Glasshouses - a profile

Based in Ropley, Hampshire, Griffin has specialised in the planning, design, manufacture and installation of made-to-measure domestic greenhouses, commercial glasshouses and orangeries since the early 1960s.

These can be free-standing, lean-to with offset ridge or straight ridges and specially designed. The firm works with powder-coated materials and has standard options but also offers a range of roof pitches, glass widths and colours as well as the accessories needed to complete the project.

SPECIFICATIONS

Project: Replace a Victorian lean-to greenhouse with a new construction of sympathetic style using modern construction methods and materials

Site: Little Priory walled garden, Surrey

Style: Lean-to

Size: 23m long by 5.1m wide

Layout: Three compartments

Materials: Galvanised steel and aluminium

Glazing: Standard horticultural glass

Foundations: Original brick base

Ventilation: Roof vents in three sections operated by a single Electroflora motor plus Bayliss Hydraulicheck automatic ventilator openers on side-opening vents, along with original ventilation arches in the brick base wall

Water supply: Rainwater collection from the roof to tanks in each compartment.


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