From a daffodil to a £45 million glasshouse, designed with the latest ecological technology, seems like a giant step. The daffodil has long been a symbol of the country of Wales. Now the Great Glasshouse, a feature of the National Botanic Garden of Wales, equals the daffodil in importance.
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The Great Glasshouse, is the central and dominating feature of the Garden, sited in the beautiful Towy Valley. It’s the largest single-span glasshouse in the world at 92 metres (300 ft) long and 55 metres (180ft) wide. Designed by Sir Norman Foster, one of the world’s leading architects, the dome’s curves are reminiscent of a glass egg, sliced in half lengthwise.
Lovers of statistics will note that the Glasshouse’s structure contains 4645 sq. metres (50,000 sq. ft) of glass panes, supported by 24 massive arches. 147 of the 785 panes are computer programmed to open and close, adjusting the climate inside. More than 4000 cubic metres (141,264 cubic ft.) of clay were excavated from beneath the glass canopy to create the landscape that includes a six metre (20ft) deep ravine, rock faces, and a stream.
Surprisingly, this glasshouse, unlike many others, isn’t filled with lush tropical greenery. Its massive interior protects threatened species from Mediterranean climates, which include those from South Africa, southwestern Australia, Chile and California. 10,000 different species of plants will eventually fill the giant greenhouse that now contains, among other plants, a Spanish olive grove, the rare Grass trees, almond trees, dwarf palms, pomegranates, and the fuschias of Chile. Interactive audio-visual and computer educational displays feature prominently.
But the Great Glasshouse isn’t all there is to the National Garden of Wales. Five years in the making and still ongoing, the Garden is dedicated to conservation, horticulture, education, science, and leisure. Quite a big shoe to fill. Fortunately it didn’t have to start from scratch.
The garden’s site is the 18th century parkland—230 ha (568 acres)—of the former Middleton Hall, once considered one of the most splendid mansions in south Wales. It was owned by a Scotsman, Sir William Paxton, who made his fortune in India and became the 4th richest man in Britain. Middleton Hall burned down in 1931, but the stable blocks and servants’ quarters survived. The servants’ quarters now hosts an interactive exhibit on herbal and plant medicines and the inside of an old chemist’s shop, while the stable block houses a restaurant, shop, and information.
The estate, when taken over by the Garden, was derelict. But its rich inheritance included hundreds of trees, grasslands, woodlands, and four of the original seven lakes designed by Paxton. With 21 historic features—including waterfalls, cascades, dams, and the ponds—to repair and restore, the Garden still has a big job on its hands.
The National Garden uses sustainable working methods. All rainwater on the site is used: a gully around the Glasshouse collects rainwater that then goes to underground water storage tanks for future use in watering the plants and filling the toilets. The roof of the Garden’s 25 metre (82 ft.) in diameter, circular visitors’ entrance is another rainwater catcher.
The most interesting recycling development is the Living Machine. Waste water from the site is drained into an underground tank, where natural bacteria eat away at it. The waste is then passed through a series of beds filled with different aquatic plants that break down and clean the waste organically, and, at the same time, fill it with nutrients. The resulting material fertilizes the site’s coppice wood, specifically grown to feed the furnace heating the Great Glasshouse.
The Garden is home to the top ten endangered Welsh plants. Among them are the Snowdon Lily found only on rock ledges in north Wales. The native Welsh Derwydd daffodils, different from all other varieties, are on display. The largest collection of snowdrops in the world—more than 100 varieties—resides at the Garden. The Garden is collecting seeds and cultivating the Sorbus Leyana, Britain’s rarest tree; less than a dozen grow in the wild.
From the circular gatehouse, visitors are led up the Broadwalk, a gently curving 220 metre (720ft) walk, punctuated with tiny rills meandering back and forth. Colourful herbaceous borders and Welsh rocks dating from prehistoric to modern times, decorate the path.
The Water Discovery Centre, on stilts above a lake, provides a learning centre for students, where water plants and the changes in water habitats over the year are featured. An unusual double walled garden, the only one of its kind in Britain, is part of the plans for future restoration. Interestingly, Paxton was ahead of his time in that he piped hot water underground to heat the garden.
The Wallace Garden, along the walkway, deals with plant genetics, that is, what people have done over the years to breed or interbreed things. It is dedicated to A. R. Wallace, a Welshman, who co-authored, with Darwin, the paper on the Origin of Species by Natural Selection. Wallace’s part in the theory is little known as he let Darwin take all the credit.
“Doing things in a natural way” is the theme of the National Botanic Garden of Wales as it sets out to prove that new sustainability techniques are possible in today’s environment. And what better way to show it off than with the Great Glasshouse.
National Botanic Garden of Wales
From the A48 between Carmarthen and Cross Hands, follow the signs.
Phone: 0 1558 668 768
Fax: 0 1558 668 933
Web: Garden of Wales
Email: Garden of Wales
Open: April-end Sep, 10am-6pm; Oct-March, 10am-4:30pm
Photos courtesy National Botanic Garden of Wales