How restoration of an historic glasshouse at Helmsley Walled Garden could see orchids grown there for the first time since a World War One tragedy

Up until a century ago, exotic fruits such as pineapples, lemons and grapes were grown alongside a variety of orchids in the glasshouses of Helmsley Walled Garden.

Helmsley Walled Garden lies in the shadow of Helmsley Castle
Helmsley Walled Garden lies in the shadow of Helmsley Castle

Planted to supply produce for the tables of nearby Duncombe Park, the trees and vines cultivated in the shadow of Helmsley Castle by the Earls of Fevershams' gardeners withered and died after World War One, when the second Earl, Charles Duncombe, was killed commanding a battalion formed in Helmsley at the Somme. The family, including his nine-year-old heir, abandoned the house and leased it to a girls' school. The walled site became a market garden until the 1980s, and thereafter fell into dereliction when the owner retired.

The glasshouses, some of which date back to Georgian times, were painstakingly restored from the 1990s onwards by a group of volunteers determined to bring the kitchen garden back to life, and they are now searching for funding to modernise the Orchid House and allow its namesake specimens to flourish there for the first time in over 100 years.

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The building is currently used as a volunteer space and classes, workshops and art exhibitions are held there - but it is unheated and dated. A target of £25,000 from public donations has been set, with staff applying for grants to add to the final amount. £7,000 has already been raised.

Tricia Harris outside the Orchid House at Helmsley Walled Garden

"Before the previous restoration in 2003, it was an absolute wreck, a shell. It had been stripped bare and the glass had gone, and there were trees growing through the walls. The first renovation was a big job, and now it's about fixing wear and tear, installing a rainwater collection system for the garden and new heating to make it more comfortable for people and plants. With warmer temperatures, we could grow orchids again, as many of them need humidity," said assistant gardens manager Tricia Harris, who left a coveted role at Kew Gardens in London for a new life in the North York Moors after falling in love with the area on holiday.

The original hothouses - the survivors include the Vine House Cafe - were heated by a steam pipe system that ran through the garden walls, but this was dismantled in the 1980s. Orange trees, coffee plants, camellias and lilies were all supported by the tropical conditions in the garden's heyday.

"The glasshouses go back as far as 1783; there was a vinery, pinery for pineapples, and an orchard house for fruit. We think the Orchid House was built around 1864, but it does not appear on a map until 1912. Most of the gardens' records were destroyed in a fire at Duncombe Park so it is difficult to find out exactly when."

A gradual overhaul of all buildings on the site is planned to ensure the gardens develop as a visitor attraction while remaining a community-orientated space.

Volunteers currently work inside the glasshouse, but it is unheated and in a basic condition

"We want to create a better environment for people so we can expand the number of courses we offer, get a gardening club going and hold talks. We exist for our volunteers, and we want to be a vibrant place. We've recently been planting our secret garden, the nature area has had a revamp, and we have a new maple walk.

"All of our glasshouses need work, as the buildings are still in a basic condition and we would like them to become meeting and events spaces in future.

"It is such a beautiful place."

Donate to the glasshouse restoration at Helmsley Walled Garden by visiting their Local Giving page here.