Knowing of the stately splendour of nearby Belton House and also of the luxurious elegance of the De Vere Belton Woods Golf Resort, I have to say the development of the Belton Garden Centre is remarkably in keeping with the historic landscape and atmosphere of this rural location a few kilometres north of Grantham, Lincolnshire.
There has been a walled garden on this site since Victorian times. In its heyday, it was famous for the production of apricots, peaches and melons - the 4.8m-tall walls being hollow and providing cavity heating fed from boiler houses located along its length. Sadly, like so many kitchen gardens belonging to great houses, this one fell into disrepair. After decades of dormancy, the site became a garden centre in 1965. My brother Howard had a job here in the 1970s. I doubt whether he would recognise it now.
Coach house style
Now, styled as a coach house and stables complete with small clock tower and timeless croquet lawns either side of a central path, the new front to Belton Garden Centre fits beautifully into its surroundings, subtly reflecting elements of the past but with modern functionality.
It gives little clue as to the horticultural gems that lie to the other side of the porched entrance. Indeed, at this point, there is no sign of a glasshouse at all - not of any size or description.
Two sets of automatic doors take the visitor through a welcoming foyer and into the shop. And the further you walk into the shop, the more you become aware of natural light.
The first part of the indoor retail area lies under a slate-tiled roof that provides shade from the sun's rays to give a cool and fade-free sales space, while the second half, reached through a wide archway in the original wall, is clad with polycarbonate sheeting and has a double-glazed glass wall running the full length of the buildings.
Today's owners - Graham, Karen and Stephen Elkington - bought Belton Garden Centre in 2007. Graham Elkington, clearly a man of vision, could see the potential to redevelop the whole site and provide a modern shopping environment - but one that would be totally sympathetic with the setting of the old walled garden and surrounding area.
"When we bought the site, everything happened economy wise," he says. A hands-on man who seemingly never rests, he has just taken a brief break from overseeing the construction of the steel framework for the new coffee shop. "We had plans for the site, but we were not sure we had them quite right, so we continued to develop our ideas and waited for things to improve. However, the economy got worse so we decided to get on and do it anyway," he says with a grin.
With planning permission gained for the £2m development, the project was split into three phases. The first, the entrance half of the shop, was met with such positive customer reactions that the Elkingtons decided to bring the next two phases forward. Part two involved completing the car parks, tarmacadam roads and walkways. But the major work was the construction of the second half of the shop as an interior retail area for plant sales.
CambridgeHOK business development manager Noel O'Leary says: "We didn't just want a standard retail frame building. With the vent system and polycarbonate roofing, it gives this space the feeling of a glasshouse, and with the completely glazed wall it is like outside but inside."
Within the roof area there is lighting to illuminate the shop in winter opening hours and fans to move the air on hot sunny days. Ventilation is full length, rack and pinion and it is operated automatically.
CambridgeHOK recently decided to take glazing totally inhouse, along with access and doorways. O'Leary says: "We were continually let down on the glazing when it came to doing garden centres and conversions. We would be given a six-week lead-in time, which would become eight, then 10 and then 12 weeks. So we bought the machinery and got started ourselves."
Now, CambridgeHOK can design, plan and manufacture the building completely - including windows and doors - deliver it and erect it. "We are a one-stop shop," O'Leary confirms. "From our point of view, we know that the day the building is ready, the glazing will be ready because it is made in the same factory."
He adds: "We know there will be no colour issues because it is being powder coated by the same people. And it means the same guys that need it fitting are the ones who will be fitting it. It gives us total control of the product and it gives our factory manager more flexibility."
Phase two began on 15 January, when the first steelworks went in. By the end of March, the retail space was occupied. "It all came together really well, I am really chuffed with it," says Graham Elkington. "The light within phase two is as good as outside - that's the key to it all - and these folding doors are brilliant."
Both men are pleased with the folding doors. There are double automatic doors at either end of the 50m double-glazed glass wall, but halfway down is a two sectioned door that folds back to give a 5m-wide opening to let the inside and outside merge.
"I'd never heard of a bi-folding door before," admits Graham Elkington. "They are brilliant, absolutely fantastic. It takes you straight outside - on the one day of the year the weather will let us. And they are no trouble - easy to open and close."
O'Leary calculates the weight of the glass at 50-60kg in each of the six large door panels, yet they float easily on tiny wheels to give the option of opening two, four or all six.
"This is the way forward for garden centres because it brings the outside in," he says. "When they are open, there are five metres of clear opening. But at the same time they comply with all the regulations. And they are double-glazed and aluminium so they fit into the environment."
With architect Steve Dunn Associates, Graham Elkington is now turning his attention to the third stage of the redevelopment - the coffee shop - reached by an archway from the walled garden. Liking the bi-fold doors so much, he has decided to install sets at either end of the space, with twin automatic sliding doors in the middle.
Involved in the development
Steven Dunn Architects
Geoff Cooke Excavators
Smith Construction (Heckington)
Steve Graves Steelwork & Cladding
John Allenby Joinery
Joe Wise Blacksmith
Lincs Architectural Glazing
Tom Atkin Painter & Decorator
Brickies Conrad, Macker & Stuart
And Jay, who laid 5,500 carpet tiles