Forum 2005Back to the Events & Training

Locations: Tatton Park

Forum 2005 held at Tatton Park.

One of the interesting presentations was by Linda Milk on Greenhouse Restoration.

How I restored my greenhouse
by Linda Milk

Background Information:

Our greenhouse is the surviving Vinery section of a much larger Boulton and Paul greenhouse that was built about 1870. It is a ¾ span structure and was originally 32 feet long by 15 feet wide, by 12 feet high. It was sub-divided into two sections by a glass wall with an intercommunicating door between the display area, complete with tiered stands, and a Vinery.

By the time we bought the property in 2003 the previous owner had dismantled the display section and built a sort of lean-to storage area on the site, leaving only the tiled floor.

The remaining 15 feet by 15 feet Vinery was complete, apart from a few odd panes of glass. It still had the original Boulton and Paul winding gear in working order, one section of original staging, one section of the iron grill with pipes under, and boiler house with brick floor and chimney but minus roof!

Although not actually falling down, the roof had a pronounced sag and the whole building had a general air of neglect that we could not ignore.

Where to Start?

Not only did we have no idea where to start but had no idea who to turn to in order to ask where to start!

Susan Campbell put me in touch with someone at Holkham Hall where they were having extensive restoration work done on the Vineries, as a result of which a man came out from the company which was doing the work at Holkham. He sent us two estimates: 1. £4,368.00 +VAT for repairs that would last for approx 3-5 years and 2. £12,156.00 + VAT for a complete restoration. We did not want to embark on something that was only going to last a few years but the price of the full restoration was totally out of the question. The company advised us that as they are very big and have a lot of huge overheads, we would definitely be able to get the job done a lot cheaper by a small local builder.

The next step was to contact various local builders, none of whom wanted to know. They didn’t want anything to do with glass.

I then looked into the possibility of a grant but no luck there either. Anything in the directory that I borrowed, that seemed as if it might be a remote possibility, stated that they did not award grants to individuals.

Next I wrote to our local daily paper as a result of which the Norfolk County Council Conservation Officer called on us. He prodded the timber with his car keys, said that it wasn’t as bad as it looked and was definitely worth saving – but that sorry, he couldn’t help as the greenhouse didn’t belong to a listed building. (Our bungalow was built in1953 in the garden of the Victorian house next door to which the greenhouse originally belonged).

A letter to BBC Radio Norfolk was my next idea, which resulted in me being given a 20min slot on a Consumer programme. This prompted two builders to ring in to the programme, both of whom offered to help. One arrived in a van with the words ‘London, Paris, & Belton’ written on the side, which summed him up really! He said that he couldn’t do the job as he did all his work in the Great Yarmouth area but thought that we could do it ourselves. He said that we could ’bung a bit in here’, ‘bung a bit in there’, ‘cut this out’, etc. Needless to say he didn’t exactly fill us with confidence.

The second builder was more interesting, having done a lot of work for English Heritage, including the Albert Memorial for which he did all the steel work. Although he worked in steel he said that we could do the job ourselves and that he would advise us. Firstly, he told us to clear out all the rubbish that the previous owner had left in the boiler pit in order that we could get to the worst wall plate. We hired a skip, emptied out the pit then called the man back whereon he told us to remove the glass from the end wall and then to ring him again.

However, this still wasn’t really getting us anywhere and we felt bad about having to keep ringing him, especially as he always came on a Sunday. By now though, we realized that if the greenhouse was to be saved we really would have to do most of it ourselves. The only thing that we really couldn’t do was the replacement of the rotten timbers so we found a builder who agreed to deal with that as long as we removed all the glass first. We agreed to pay them on a daily basis as they had no idea how to price the job and it would also mean that we could call a halt if it started to get too expensive.

The Restoration:

Step One: On April 19th 2003 we removed all the glass, labelling it as we did so, as someone along the way had told us that it would make it easier when it came to replacing it all back again.

Step Two: The carpenters replaced the worst of the structural timbers. They initially came for two days but we felt able to afford a third day at the end of which they had replaced 2 wall plates, 1 complete rafter and ½ rafter plus minor repairs to make up the last hour or so of each day.

Step Three: We then had to rub down the whole structure.

Step Four: We then applied two coats of Linseed Oil to the entire structure.

Step Five: We painted on two coats of Holkham Linseed Paint. (It should have been three coats but we were beginning to run out of steam by now having already been over it all five times with rubbing down, oiling and painting.)

Step Six: Replaced all the glass. The labelling had been almost a total waste of time as, with the new wood in, the structure was not quite the same shape, having had the saggy timbers removed. We only had to buy about 20 sheets of glass but unfortunately, not being glaziers, we didn’t feel able to do a good enough job with putty, so we took the builder’s advice and used numerous tubes of silicon.

We didn’t lime-wash the interior walls as I didn’t want it to look ‘new’ but also, after working on it for two months solid, we really were feeling worn out! At an age when most of our friends are beginning to take life a bit easier, we had taken on a huge task of a type that was totally new to us!

The total time involved was 2 months almost to the day and the total cost was £797.37
Lessons learned:

I would strongly advise anyone thinking of doing their own restoration to do as much as they can possibly afford whilst the glass is out. We wish now, that we had had the two remaining wall plates replaced whilst the carpenters were here as, although they weren’t as bad as those that were replaced, they were bad enough to warrant replacement. If in a few years time they need to be done it will be a good deal more work as the glass will need to be removed again.
The whole project has made me realize how alone we private owners really are when it comes to restoration of smaller structures. Whilst it is admirable that the large estates are able to get huge grants towards saving worthwhile old buildings, every year there must be at least hundreds of old greenhouses and outbuildings that are falling down either because the owners cannot afford to save them or because they just don’t realize that they are an important part of our daily social history at a more ordinary level.