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Restoring the Temperate House at Kew

Next time you feel tempted to moan about cleaning the winter grime from your greenhouse, spare a thought for the team at the world-famous Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. They have just completed the task of stripping down, cleaning, repainting and replanting the “Greatest Glasshouse in the World”

The world’s largest surviving Victorian-era glasshouse opened in 1863 and is now Grade 1 listed. Construction began in 1859, the same year Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” was published, but immediately prior to the construction, Kew had been languishing after the death of it’s caretaker and champion, Joseph Banks.

Then, the proposals of Dr Lindley (a respected botanist, Head of a Treasury-appointed committee and also Secretary of the embryonic RHS) ensured its survival. He had a vision of Kew at the centre of an Empire-wide network of gardens who could exchange plants for agriculture, commerce and medicine using the new Wardian Case method of moving live plants over long distances.

William Jackson Hooker took the post of Director in 1841 and in his 24 years in charge, took the Gardens to new heights. The grounds were enlarged and united under a plan drawn up by William Andrews Nesfield, opening hours were extended and the grand Main Gate was erected in 1846.

The surge in plants from abroad put the gardens under pressure to find the right environment to keep them alive and the need for a “temperate” house, as opposed to the warmer Palm House, became urgent. Plans by Decimus Burton were approved, but a cut to the funding budget meant that although the central parallelogram and the octagons at each end were built when it opened, the two wings were unfinished. The wings, which finally allowed the plants to be given their ideal conditions, were completed in 1897.

At this point, the earlier structures were still glazed with green glass, while the new ones had clear glass. The paint inside the wooden structures varied from green to dark bronze and many plants were struggling in low light levels.

Cut to 2013 when, after years of struggling to keep up with the maintenance, the doors of the Temperate House closed for the complete restoration to begin. Over the next five years, under a tent large enough to accommodate three Boeing 747s, the building was taken apart. All 15,000 panes of glass were replaced and the ironwork and flooring restored. Over 13 layers of paint were found in the oldest parts of the building in colours including cream, pale blue and peppermint green.

The Temperate House restoration by numbers:

  • 5 years from beginning to end
  • 400 staff members and contractors worked on the project
  • 180Km of scaffolding was used (enough to go round the M25)
  • 69,000 individual elements were removed from the building
  • 116 urns were lifted down and restored
  • 5,280 litres of paint were used to cover 14,080m (four football pitches)
  • 10,000 plants replanted inside the Temperate House

This stunning collection is home to many plants that are endangered or thought to be extinct in the wild. Their preservation may be key to finding vital medicines in the future and for repopulating areas where plants become extinct.

The 132 hectares of landscaped gardens at Kew was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2003. Along with their country estate, Wakehurst, they attract over 2.1 million visitors every year. Wakehurst is home to the Millenium Seed Bank, the largest wild plant seed bank in the world.

Both are well worth a visit, whether you are a student of horticulture, a keen gardener or you just enjoy walking in beautiful surroundings. The plant collections are superb and, as more and more of our historic parks are lost, they are a rare opportunity to see groups of related plants together.

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