People who live in glass houses

The Butts transformed a derelict palm house into an ideal home.
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The Independent Online
As a teenager cultivating her small patch at boarding school, Jenny Butt always dreamt of having a walled garden. At the time she probably imagined it as part of a traditional country house. Instead, a walled garden is what she and her husband have ended up living inside.

The outstanding period feature of their garden home is not a fireplace or cornice, but a spectacular 30ft high palm house, flanked on either side by long, low vine houses. Their main living quarters have been carved out of an assortment of outhouses and potting-sheds which run for 140 feet behind the great glass facade.

Twenty years ago, the buildings were derelict remains lying in gardens that had been ploughed over in the war. They belonged to a nurseryman, who could not afford the pounds 250 demanded by a scrap metal merchant to pull the place down. Instead he put the cast-iron wreck, an assortment of potting sheds and coal bunkers, and the walled garden in which they stood up for sale. "A most unusual country property," the advert said. When Loren and Jenny Butt saw the ad they were living in an Edwardian house in Harpenden, Hertfordshire. "We had no plans to move," says Loren, "but we came whizzing down the next day, looked at it and decided to buy it. It had to be saved."

Few people would have agreed. The dock leaves in the garden grew six feet high, the beds and paths had long since disappeared and barely a pane of glass remained in the palm house. To Jenny and Loren the place was ideal. Their teenage children thought they were mad.

Loren Butt was working as an engineer with Norman Foster's architectural practice. Modern buildings were his work and his hobby. To him the palm house at Sherfield in Hampshire represented a fascinating moment in architectural history.

Jenny's focus was on the gardens. As a trained horticulturalist with a passion for growing plants she relished the opportunity to get the kitchen garden back into working order. Their photo albums of the past 20 years chronicle the transformation from wreck to listed building alongside the regular family snapshots. Papers and documents chronicle the earlier history of their home.

The palm house was built in 1898 by the Messenger Company for a Hampshire diamond merchant called John Taylor. The company's client list reads like an abridged version of Debretts. It seems that in the Victorian era of Crystal Palace and grand winter gardens anyone who was anyone had a glass house.

John Taylor was no exception. He decided to move the central vine house in his kitchen garden and replace it with a grand palm house. The finished article featured in Gardeners' Chronicle in 1903 in much the same way as a smart conservatory might feature in an issue of House and Garden. The palm house was heated and ventilated to keep a constant temperature of around 25C and 80 per cent humidity suitable for the exotic flora that were starting to appear in England. The back was a living wall of moss, planted with orchids and ferns. Around the edges and in the centre, huge palms were displayed on iron benches making it a place to walk around and admire, rather than a room to sit in.

Now the palm house has a distinctly Mediterranean feel with olive, fig and mimosa inside and heavy clumps of rosemary and lavender outside. Jenny Butt chose the plants as much for their scent as their looks. The iron castings which set off the Heath Robinson method of opening and closing the windows still operate smoothly. Loren Butt shows them off like a proud parent.

The vast lawns of the garden have several beds of vegetables and fruits - peaches, pears, plums, damsons, loganberries, blackberries, medler, quince - Jenny has tried the lot. It was four years before she planted her first border. Now one runs the entire length of the listed wall behind the house, dominated by large shrubs such as choisya, buddleia and pampas grasses. The workload is too heavy now for Jenny, which is why they are selling up and moving on.

The regular living quarters were very much Loren Butt's work. In the large bothy that once housed the gardeners he created a kitchen, dining area and living-room. From there a long corridor leads down to the main bedroom, with two small bedrooms, two bathrooms, a large office, laundry and larder in between. This is their winter quarters and the glass houses are for summer.

The palm house has been the setting for a wedding, a baptism and numerous parties which converted the Butts' teenage sons to its merits. Friends who knew them in more conventional times have been astonished that such a place could exist. Loren's old colleague Norman Foster has dropped by a few times, most memorably in his helicopter. "He was on his way to Wiltshire and offered to drop me off," Loren recalls. "Yes," says Jenny, "he landed on the lawn and blew the runner beans down."

The Walled Garden, Sherfield on Loddon, is for sale through John D Wood in Winchester (01962 863131) for pounds 280,000.

At one with your garden ...

Two more homes created from gardeners' bothies are for sale in Surrey. The Gardens, Capel, started life as a bothy at Grenehurst Park: the old wall of the kitchen garden is now the flat front of this two-storey, five-bedroom, house. The two-acre garden includes a Victorian apple walk, cherry, fig, pear and plum trees. Browns at Cranleigh (01483 267070) is asking pounds 300,000.

The Round House, Park Hatch, Hascombe was also once a gardener's bothy. It now has a round tower and two wings. The walled gardens, which once supplied the Park Hatch estate with fruit and flowers, have continued to provide a living, with more recent customers including Kensington Palace. Browns in Cranleigh is asking pounds 425,000 for the four-bedroom property.

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