The largest glasshouse in the UK is of course the Temperate House at Kew Gardens. The second largest is far less well known, though also in London and more readily accessible. It's the Avery Hill Park Winter Garden, at the far end of the borough of Greenwich on the outskirts of Eltham. This intriguing temperate hothouse is open daily* for your delectation and delight, and all for absolutely no entrance fee whatsoever.
* Closed Christmas Day, Boxing Day and New Year's Day (so don't go this Thursday)
The house to which the Winter Garden is attached was built in the 1840s by a Scottish sugar refiner called Boyd - James Boyd. When he died his widow moved away to the seaside, and the mansion was bought by Colonel North, a self-made entrepreneur from Leeds nicknamed The Nitrate King. He made his fortune by importing fertiliser from South America, more specifically shipfuls of bird droppings, and Avery Hill House was his step-up in society. Improvements to the building included a large iron and glass structure with a domed roof, the Winter Garden, within which to house plants from around the world. And some of those are still there, I'd wager, given the age of the central trees scraping up to the ceiling.
Avery Hill Park lies a mile beyond Eltham on the Bexley Road. The park itself is screened behind an old brick wall, and then the Avery Hill campus of the University of Greenwich. Some of this North's old mansion, other parts are tacked-on annexes - look for the arched gateway and keep walking through. The park itself is pleasant enough, if a little muddy at this time of year, with a shuttered cafeteria whose outside tables are divided into dog-friendly and dog-free. If you fancy outdoor table tennis and boules, here's the place. In summer the Colonel's rose garden must be quite a sight - at present rather less so. And the enormous domed outhouse alongside is the Winter Garden, which if you've timed your visit right* should be open to viewing.
* Open 10am to 4pm daily (but closed for lunch between 1pm and 2pm)
Once through the outer door you reach a glass porch with doorhandles that couldn't be more 1960s if they tried. The Winter Garden is under the custodianship of the University of Greenwich, and it shows, in an almost-loved but not-treasured kind of manner. And then the faded glories of the temperate house are spread out before you. The interior is quartered into four distinct raised planting areas, semi-filled with cacti and other green plants of various heights. Some are in flower, as you'd hope in a Winter Garden, though most are merely in leaf, occasionally voluminously so. In the centre, where Colonel North had a fountain, is a lofty araucaria excelsa, or Norfolk Island Pine. And even higher alongside is a Canary Island Palm, its fronds bursting out beneath the glass ceiling like an arboreal firework.
The back of the interior is barriered off to prevent access, a hint that all is not as structurally sound as one might hope. Various prints depict the Winter Garden in its Victorian heyday, considerably fuller and better tended, with creepers tumbling down the supporting columns. There's also a portrait photograph of Colonel North, who closely resembles Tom Hanks but with dapper top hat and muttonchop whiskers, along with a group shot taken with his beloved racing greyhounds. And to one side is a small cabin in which I suspect a head gardener or bored security guard passes their time, complete with small sink, telephone and Percy Thrower gardening book. They were out when I visited, which meant I got the whole building completely to myself, which was both unexpected and rather lovely.
Public access is also available to an ornamental conservatory, this rather more comprehensively cultivated. Its centrepiece is a small pond filled with goldfish, currently with two arum lilies in bloom, topped off by a classical statue of the nymph Galatea. From here a short staircase leads into the university proper, for whom this must be a rather delightful space to relax and socialise, though alas not for very much longer.
Rewind to 2012, and the University put in for Heritage Lottery cash to repair and restore the Winter Garden. They were successful in getting through Stage 1, then had a couple of years to put together a more detailed Stage 2 bid... which they recently decided to withdraw. A laminated message on the conservatory door explains the reasoning for pulling out in broad non-specific terms, somewhat unconvincingly, and apologises for the collective administrative effort that's been wasted. But the reasons for this lottery decision became much clearer a fortnight ago when the university suddenly announced plans to sell up and leave the site in 2015. Staff can be rationalised on other campuses, they say, so Avery Hill is surplus to requirements.
And that leaves the Winter Garden's future somewhat in the balance. Not in immediate danger, because the glasshouse and certain other parts of the mansion building are protected by their listed status. Indeed existing covenants ensure that whoever buys the site will have to maintain the fabric in at least its present state, and will be forced to keep the Winter Garden open to the public. But who's to say who the new tenant will be, or how soon they'll turn up, and what the condition of the ironwork might be by the time they've moved in. Will the Winter Garden end up an adjunct to a luxury housing development, or a forgotten folly overlooking a Greenwich park? If enough of us take an interest, even simply make a visit, hopefully Colonel North's hothouse will survive and flourish into the future.