Graham Donachie, the head gardener at 15th century manor house Oxburgh Hall, was on the receiving end of some expensive news as he struggled to replace the crumbling old suntrap in the pad’s moated garden last year.
“To put one up like the Victorian one, in wood, the quote I got was £162,000,” he recalls. “The other option was aluminium, and that was £141,000. All I wanted was a new glasshouse, but obviously as a property in deficit we can’t afford to lay out like the richer properties.”
Fortunately for Donachie, an exuberant 63-year-old who has worked for the National Trust for more than 30 years, assistant June Moy – who he describes as “a workaholic with these wonderful ideas” – was not to be put off.
“She said, ‘why can’t we do it ourselves?’ I said ‘don’t be daft’ – then I thought about it and got a report together.”
Drumming up a talent pool of volunteers comprising “all different types”, including architects, painters and welders, he eventually put his case to the Trust.
They initially said no on health and safety grounds, but the appointment of new property manager Teresa Squires changed that. “She went to regional office and said ‘oh come on, don’t be so stupid’,” explains Donachie. “I was given £20,000 and they said ‘right, get on with it.’ It got us off their back.”
From then on, the team’s story has been one of improvisation, favour-enticing and more than a little luck.
They used heavy hammers to demolish the skeleton, which had been standing since the 1950s, persuaded an electrician to “take all the guts out”, and took the brickwork below ground level, using tonnes of straw bales and sacks to cover the water pipes before praying for a mild winter.
“It was quite severe, but when spring came and we had a look the pipework was safe, so we could carry on,” says Donachie. Nearby stately home Blickling Hall lent a mortis machine to cut beams and framework, a trust body donated £1,000 for an 800-gallon water harvester to be buried outside, and the electricians knocked £300 off the bill to rewire the structure.
“I got in touch with Swaffham Glass – a chap called Jerome, the boss of the company, came and had a look,” adds Donachie, by which time you can almost guess what might be coming.
“He gave me a price of £650 for the glass. We were going to cut it ourselves, but he so fell in love with what we were doing that he said, ‘I tell you what, would you mind if I put it in?’ I told him I couldn’t pay him, but he didn’t want any money.”
The company turned up on evenings and weekends to install the panes free of charge, while a group working with unemployed young people worked alongside volunteers to learn new skills during the day.
“I must stress, I haven’t got a clue how to build a glasshouse,” insists Donachie, who also had the minor task of running the 100-acre gardening estate for an audience of 70,000 visitors while the eight-month mission went on.
“The whole idea of this project was to prove that volunteers, however old they are, can be excellent. The young and the old all came together for the common cause, and we had such fun. I had to hold people back at times.”
Coming in at a total cost of £12,000, their remarkable effort was rewarded with a launch outside the gleaming new greenhouse last week, followed by a trip to the pub.
“I know it sounds bigheaded, but I knew if the Trust gave me the money we could do the job,” Donachie finishes.
“I’m a people person, and we put pictures up so the visitors could see what was going up, which sold it to them. There were no losers. I’ve got a few more grey hairs, but I loved every minute of it.”