History of the Glasshouse

Article first published in TIVYSIDE Newspaper 18 February 2004

ON a bright winter’s day with a wind as keen as mustard, a small group of builders tuck into their sarnies and bask In the warmth of the sun.

“This is the only place we’ve worked where we could step out the door and pick a fig off the tree outside,” says Dave Lippiatt. “But on a really hot day it was almost too much to bear I’ve worked in some pretty hot places in my time but this place takes some beating.”

The venue, it has to be said, is situated but a sheep’s spit away from the rain-lashed hills of north Pembrokeshire. This is the spot where, if there’s the faintest glint of a shower, you can bet your mac it’ll fall on these inclement and windswept parts. To call this place grim is to do it a justice.

If you decided to grow pineapples here then you’d need a constant temperature of 75 degrees Fahrenheit,” continues Dave’s mate, Andy Richmond. “The same applies to melons and all the other tropical fruits. But there are days when it gets way, way hotter than 75, in fact it gets so hot that it’s as much as we can do to carry on working.”

Now before you reach the conclusion that said builders are prone to a munch on the porky pies or a ride on the flying pig read on. Last summer, as the nation basked in one of the hottest summers on record, Dave, Andy and the rest of their courageous team were restoring one of the finest glasshouses in Wales.

The building was discovered some 10 years previously in the grounds of Rhosygilwen Mansion near Rhoshill when the property was bought by Glen Peters and his wife Brenda Squires The couple promptly set to work restoring both the mansion house and the surrounding gardens and last summer they decided to tackle the dilapidated glasshouse, which flanks the enormous walled garden.

“It was in a pretty sorry state,” reveals Glen as he joins the team for their celebratory lunch in the now completed glasshouse. “Only about a third of the original building was remaining and what was left had been given a perspex roof. The glasshouse Was neglected and dismal.”

Builder Dave Lippiatt and his brother Adrian, a carpenter, were already engaged in the restoration of Rhosygilwen house and so Glen determined to put their expertise to good use in the subsequent restoration his glasshouse. “Fortunateiy enough of the original features had remained to enable us to get a pretty good idea of how the glasshouse would have looked in its heyday,” continues Dave who specialises in the restoration of historic buildings. “We started copying what was already here’ and also scoured the internet to look for plans of other historic glasshouses.”

Their investigations revealed that the glasshouse was probably built at the turn of the last century, making it early Edwardian both in design and appearance. “This fitted in quite neatly with the abolition of the glass tax in the second half of the 19th century.” continues Glen. “All of a sudden glass was being used in a totally new and adventurous way. Conservatories and glasshouses were being built all over the country and they quickly became recognised as a status symbol and an indication of the owner’s wealth. The bigger and more exotic the glasshouse the wealthier the owner would be.”

The ascent of the glasshouse was heightened further by the Nottingham-based company Foster Pearson who patented a glasshouse design very similar to the one at Rhosygilwen. ‘The design comprises three separate ‘rooms’ each served by a sophisticated underground heating system which controls the temperature of each room to a precise degree. A filigree grid runs along the entire length of the 60-foot glasshouse in which lie massive cast-iron pipes to pump the water.

“The boiler would have been located below ground and a convection heating system would have moved the water around,” explains Andy, a steelwork specialist.” A huge amount of water would have been used in the system, thousands of gallons, and many local people still remember seeing the chimneys blowing out smoke right up until the 1950s when the glasshouse was being looked after by some Italian prisoners of war.”

The Rhosygilwen glasshouse is believed to be the largest and most significant of its kind in Wales and bears many similarities to the magnificent glasshouse at Helligan. “There’s no doubt that it would have been a tremendous status symbol for the Colbys who owned Rhosygilwen at the turn of the century,” continued Glen Peters. “The family also owned Ffynone mansion near Newchapel so it’s quite likely that the glasshouse would have had to grow enough produce to serve both houses and probably kept up to ten gardeners busy on a full-time basis.”

A pineapple pit which has survived intact indicates that the glasshouse would have nurtured a range of exotic fruits including peaches and a vine as well as a range of tropical blooms to decorate the two grand houses and their estate churches has been glazed with special horticultural glass, which absorbs a higher concentration of growing rays than normal glass while the intricate pulley system, which opens and shuts the windows has been painstakingly restored by Andy.

“In its day this glasshouse would have been pretty revolutionary,” continues Glen Peters. “In fact it’s pretty revolutionary now! The pulley system allows for an incredible throughput of air, which would have created the exact growing conditions for the plants.”

The newly restored glasshouse is already being put to good use by Rhosygilwen gardener John Thomas who is using it to bring plants on before planting them out in the walled garden later in the Spring. A recently planted vine is also doing well as are the four fledgling acer trees salvaged from Rhosygilwen’s aboretum.

“Buildings such as these are priceless,” concludes Glen. “You can’t put a value on them because they’re part of a rapidly disappearing heritage. And when you try to build them from new you’re merely creating a fake. It’s extremely sad when you hear of buildings like this being pulled down” because there can’t be many left either In the UK or the world. This makes our glasshouse at Rhosygilwen even more special and we’re proud that it’s going to be used and appreciated for more years to come.”