Greenhouses at the Miserden Nursery

PUBLISHED: 12:13 19 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:03 20 February 2013

David Robb

David Robb

In the 1920s, the greenhouses and vineries at Miserden Nursery, near Stroud, would have supplied flowers and fruit to the estate and surrounding village. But when David Robb came across them in the early 1990s, they'd fallen into disrepair.

IN its heyday, there would have been seven full-time gardeners pushing wheelbarrows, pruning roses, and tending the lush nectarines ripening in the elegant greenhouses and vineries on the Miserden Estate. Exotic plants would bloom throughout the year, ready to add colour and charm to the dining table in the big house. And whenever the lady herself visited, the head gardener would shoo off his other staff and deferentially show her round, bursting with evident pride.

Nowadays, there's just one full-time worker and his part-time assistant managing that same four-acre plot. But the one thing that hasn't changed is the sense of pride. "Some mornings, I come up to water the plants at six or seven o'clock as the sun is rising, and I just feel I'd like everyone to see what I'm seeing," says David Robb.

Indeed, these are unique surroundings, a giddy 800 feet up on the Cotswold hills. Were that former head gardener to be brought back to life, he'd certainly recognise David's appreciation of the beautiful countryside that frames this site - but he'd be amazed at the change in his old fruit and vegetable patch. Since David took it on in 1992, he has transformed it into a plant nursery, specialising in herbaceous perennials.

"I needed to establish a business that achieved two goals," David says. "The first was to make enough money to enable me to renovate this wonderful greenhouse complex; the second was to make a living for me and my family."

Indeed, as we walk around the site, it's easy to see what a challenge he set himself. There are five elegant glasshouses - all different in their design - and two large vineries, as well as cold frames and a rather grand potting shed. It's hard to believe such attention was lavished on a complex designed to grow fruit and vegetables: in amongst acres of glass, there are ornate wrought-iron supports and ingenious, highly-engineered mechanisms to open the windows.

A hot-water heating system, powered by two boilers under the potting shed, enabled the mistress of the estate to enjoy cut flowers all year round. As the water got hotter, it would surge up vast iron pipes and round each frame, before being gravity-fed back down. In the vineries, the heat would help nurture grapes, nectarines and peaches for the delectation of the family and visiting house guests.

It was the abolishment of a glass tax in 1850 that led to greenhouses such as this being commissioned for country estates up and down the country. Miserden's complex was one of the last to be constructed - it went up in 1920. In fact, that's probably one of the reasons why it survived. It was still relatively new in the 1940s, when many of the older greenhouses were falling irrevocably into disrepair. Out of two or three hundred such sites nationwide, Miserden is one of only eight that still stand.

David and his wife, Philippa, came across it 16 years ago, dragged along on an 'open garden' day by a friend. It was a rather sorry sight, "But its beauty still captivated us. The place had a magical quality about it that conjured up images of a bygone era."

They jumped at the chance of taking it on. David was working in distribution at the time, but fancied branching out on his own. "I didn't have a definite idea about what I should do: all I knew was that I wanted something I could see through from start to finish, rather than being a cog in a big machine."

With no horticultural experience and savings of just 5,000, the Robbs leased the land off the supportive estate, and set about the huge task of renovation, often with the help of enthusiastic friends. It wasn't a moment too soon: the houses had already lost their glass and, without that support, the wood was beginning to move out of shape. Alongside that work, the Robbs had to set up a business; they opened to the public in late 1992, after deciding to specialise in more unusual plants - things you wouldn't find in a garden centre - but which would survive in the sometimes harsh Cotswold climate. They now sell almost 1,000 varieties, plus their own bedding plants.

"We're so high up here, we know our plants are tough. Our spring arrives four or five weeks later than Cheltenham. In March, you could drive up through daffodils to the Air Balloon, and then find yourself going back through the seasons. When you get here, it's winter again!"

It's not been easy. For one thing, this is the proverbial Forth Bridge. Each house needs renovating every third year - with only David to do it. One greenhouse takes a month to paint and, being a one-man-band, David has to come down off the ladder each time a customer calls. Though Philippa remains an enthusiast, she now has their three daughters to look after, as well as working herself to ensure a regular wage for the household.

"To do any restoration work, you need dry weather - last year was a disaster," David says, breaking off as he notices a fallen bit of guttering: another job for the list.

For the dedicated band of customers who make a point of coming here each year, the joy of Miserden doesn't just lie in its unique setting. This is how nurseries should be: somewhere offering ideal plants for the locality; and, moreover, somewhere that raises those plants, with full knowledge of all their peccadilloes to boot. It's as perfect a place for new gardeners as it is for experts seeking something a bit different.

If you're aiming to be rich, you wouldn't want to be in David's gardening boots. A compact modern polytunnel at the top of the site holds the same amount as rest of the glass, with no running costs; but when it comes to 'looks', there's no competition. The Victorian greenhouses are simply stunning.

"It's incredibly difficult to make this work financially," David admits. "In its heyday a site like this would have been operated by in-house staff. Today, the costs of maintaining it are heavy, and the work can be extremely tiring. At peak times, I'm here all day, pop home to eat and read bedtime stories, then come back for a night-shift. But I wouldn't do it if I didn't love it. To me, this is like the farmers' market in Stroud: something that enriches a place rather than being blind commercialism.

"Although we don't have the ability to diversify like the big garden centres, we do have something for everyone. While one person might look at the plants, or admire the view, another will be fascinated by the old Victorian pipe work. The best bit is when I see people who've had a hard week at work come up here at a weekend and visibly relax. They thank us for being here."

As the wind sweeps across the site, 800 feet up in the Cotswold hills, he shivers. "I've been standing still for too long. Nothing like pushing a wheelbarrow full of soil to make you feel warmer!" And off he goes to perform another endless task in the bitter cold - full of job satisfaction.

Miserden Nursery is at Miserden, Stroud, GL6 7JA, 01285 821638, It reopens for the season in late March, Tuesday to Sunday and Bank Holiday Mondays, 10am-5pm

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