New life for historic conservatories
Supported by The National Lottery Heritage Fund, Warrington Borough Council is working with a range of partners to bring a much-loved, historic asset back into use.
Walton Hall and Gardens, situated in south Warrington, is often referred to as the jewel in the borough’s crown. A popular attraction, visited by 200,000 people every year from inside and outside the borough, it is regarded as one of the top outdoor leisure destinations in Warrington.
Its journey to becoming of one of Warrington’s green treasures began in the 19th century with Walton Estate owners Lord and Lady Daresbury, and their passion for agriculture and gardening. They envisaged Walton Hall as a “Kew Gardens of the North” and between 1890 and 1930 they transformed the estate’s gardens.
Now owned and operated by Warrington Borough Council, the site is steeped in history, not least the grand setting of Walton Hall, which stands proudly at its heart. It is also home to Lady Daresbury’s formal gardens, the old riding school, the heritage yard, and even a children’s zoo.
And it is becoming a 21st century cultural hub, serving as the centrepiece for a range of large-scale, outdoor events, including artisans markets, film festivals and concerts. Later this year, it will welcome Jools Holland and his Rhythm & Blues Orchestra, as well as the beloved ballet, Romeo and Juliet, brought to an outdoor Big Screen by the Royal Opera House.
It is in this climate that Warrington Borough Council has driven forward its plans for the continuing development of the Walton Estate, improving the range of facilities for residents and visitors, restoring its historic assets and ensuring it remains a valued local resource for future generations.
A key part of this work has been the restoration of the Estate’s conservatories.
A major attraction
Walton Estate’s conservatories date from the latter part of the 19th century. Part of Lord and Lady Daresbury’s transformation of the Estates gardens, the magnificent ‘glasshouses’ were built over the footprint of existing buildings and a slender frame of timber and iron was designed to maximise the area of glass. During World War I, Lord and Lady Daresbury left Walton Hall and the conservatories were used for breeding hens and rabbits. After the Daresburys returned, the buildings were renovated and a new heating system was installed.
During the 1920s and 1930s, Walton Hall and Gardens was opened to the public for open days which drew crowds as large as 45,000. The main conservatory was a major attraction and contained five ‘unique worlds’, each with a different theme or climate.
The estate was sold to Warrington Borough Council in 1941 who open it to the public in 1945.
Over the decades, the stature of the conservatories diminished, culminating with the conservatory range closing to the public in September 1993. For almost 25 years, the buildings fell into disrepair. They remained standing thanks to temporary supporting beams and maintenance from the estate’s rangers and volunteers from The Friends of Walton Estate. Heavy glass that was putting stress on the timber was removed, overgrown planting trimmed, brickwork rearranged and original ironwork preserved.
It was the tireless encouragement of the Friends of Walton Estate that was a key catalyst for the conservatories’ rejuvenation. In 2012, Warrington Borough Council agreed to take on the development of a project to restore and revitalise the existing conservatory, glasshouses and shippon.
At the heart of this was the vision to secure a sustainable future for the conservatories – and increase their value as a community resource - by transforming the site into a dedicated learning centre, with innovative teaching and training for young adults and people with disabilities - providing pathways to increased wellbeing, work readiness, entrepreneurship and employment.
Warrington Borough Council bid for National Lottery Heritage Funding which would enable the vision to become a reality. The bid focused on developing partnerships - with Myerscough College, specialists in education and training for land based industries, and with Walton Lea Partnership, a successful local charity providing supported employment for adults with learning disabilities. These organisation will occupy the buildings long term, as a learning hub, offering apprenticeships, qualifications and opportunities for social enterprise, helping the Council provide a sustainable future for the buildings
In 2017, the project received its landmark moment, with the confirmation of £2m grant funding from The National Lottery Heritage Fund to restore the conservatory range, along with additional funding until 2022 to engage the public and volunteers in the heritage story.
It meant work could begin in earnest on bringing the conservatories back into use, through the conservation, repair and refurbishment of the shippon, vinery, potting sheds, lean-to sheds and glass houses, that would provide non-residential education, retail, offices and workshops.
The Heritage challenges
Contractors Rosslee Construction were selected following a long procurement process and began work on site in April 2018. Their expertise was vital in ensuring the restoration works were sensitive to the heritage value of the site. They brought on specialist subcontractors for areas such as stonework and joinery, to ensure the highest quality standards.
Walton Estate is Grade 2 Listed, so the scheme required Listed Building consent in addition to planning approval. But this wasn’t the only challenge that needed to be overcome.
The conservatory range contains thousands of pieces of slender, elegant timber. During construction each piece of timber was removed, tagged to mark its original location and assessed for rot. To ensure the site remained structurally safe the original timber that was in a good condition was used internally and new timber used for the external, structurally significant beams.
The conservatory range’s brickwork was generally in very good condition, with more than 90% of the bricks on site today originally dating from 1899-1910. The walls were dismantled brick by brick, cleaned, assessed for damage and rebuilt. The original lime mortar was analysed and a similar lime mortar used, to allow any moisture to leave the walls through the mortar rather than damaging the bricks.
Almost all of the original ironwork was repaired and reused. Through paint testing the ironwork, a number of paint colours were found. One of the most prominent colours, a powder blue, was chosen for the restoration. The new ironwork has been cast to match the original.
Glasshouses ready to shine
Now, the next chapter of the conservatories story is about to begin. The restoration work is due to complete in July 2019, ushering in a new era for Warrington’s much-loved glasshouses.
The project celebrates the heritage of the estate and will ensure lasting and sustainable benefits for local communities – creating opportunities for people to gain new skills and experiences, improve health and wellbeing, make social connections and contribute to a success story of rejuvenation, inclusiveness and innovation.
Warrington Borough Council’s executive board member for culture, leisure and community, Cllr Tony Higgins, said: “The rejuvenation of the Walton Estate conservatories is a real success story for Warrington, and a fantastic example of how effective partnership work can protect, preserve and ultimately, bring new life to our most treasured historic assets.
“Our glasshouses are about to shine once more as an iconic centrepiece for Walton Hall, as a high quality public venue for learning, development and volunteering - and as a historic treasure to be enjoyed for many years to come.”
For more information about the project, visit warrington.gov.uk and enter ‘Walton conservatory range project’ into the search box.