For quite some time I have been writing each month about West Deans Gardens, extolling its virtues to entice you to visit. Who could fault a walk in the fresh air with a delicious drink and/or edible treat at the end? It's a no brainer! Indulge me please for this month as I would like to write about West Dean's Victorian glasshouses and their importance in the history of walled gardens.
When glasshouse ranges like ours were developed during the 19th century, they opened the way for cultivation of all sorts of edible and ornamental treasures from Malmaison carnations to orchids, figs, aubergines and beyond. They were literally the supermarkets of their day providing the family of the big house, staff and guests with all their edible and floral needs. Our West Dean glasshouses were lovingly tended by 11 gardeners who worked either under glass or tended the fruit trees and garden beds outside but inside the walled gardens (a further 11 worked in the pleasure grounds and arboretum) and each person had their particular responsibilities guided by the knowledgeable hand of the head gardener of the day.
This way of management continued until the Second World War but after that it was all change at West Dean and the beginning of the decline of the glasshouse range. After that time and where possible, the remaining viable glasshouses were used to support the activities of the gardens and light commercial enterprises which fed crops to Covent Garden market.The change was from private to commercial use.
The storms of the 1987 and 1990 further damaged the fragile structures leaving only a proportion of glass able to be used for growing on crops for a plant nursery located in what is now the fruit garden. When Jim and I arrived in 1991, the nursery was closed at the behest of the trustees and a plan for the walled garden developed, presented to and given the green light by them. So began an exciting time of redevelopment and renewal within the walled garden walls. The thrill of seeing glasshouses come back to life was such that one almost didn't want to put plants back inside because of marring the perfect beauty of the glasshouse, but put back plants we did. Now they are a joy to behold during the summer months, over flowing once again with traditional crops and more recent introductions like chillies.
Garden visitors are now our audience not the family of the big house and we gardeners love to hear the exclamations of delight when a certain aspect of the glasshouses pleases them. Also over the years art students from West Dean College have come to paint, photograph and draw inside the houses and some of the glasshouse potted plants find their way into the classrooms for all sorts of art courses.
It's rare to see a range of glass still in active use and available to visit such as ours at West Dean We, all of us, are incredibly lucky to have them still standing to enjoy. They are a marvel of ingenuity and design and it's an absolute joy to work within them (dare say the cleaning team might not agree with that last statement)! However…. since the initial refurbishment in the early nineties, these beauties have gradually declined; no longer will small repairs suffice and because we heat some of them artificially and dare to grow plants in them, decay accelerates through the combination of these two elements. As you may well know we have embarked on a programme of rebuild and repair but it costs a lot to do this, so I am appealing to you directly this December to donate to our glasshouse appeal and help us keep these glasshouses safe and working for future generations to enjoy. Please visit our website for details on how you might donate and if you already have donated then you are a jolly nice person!
Thank you, Sarah Wain, Gardens Supervisor