John Dillwyn Llewelyn’s ‘Orchideous House’ at Penllergare; An accidental encounter.

Kevin L. Davies

Whilst undertaking a moss and liverwort  survey of the Penllergare Estate during the weeks leading up to Christmas 2009,  I accidentally came upon the ruins of a complex (Fig.1) which, in its heyday,  consisted of a gardener’s house, apprentice gardeners’ quarters, frame-yard  with pineapple house, a walled garden with rear-heated vineries, a heated  heather house and a rockery with pond. In the midst of the walled garden stood the  remains of a building that I immediately recognized as John Dillwyn Llewelyn’s  ‘Orchideous House’, dating from about 1843 (Fig. 2). It had always been an  ambition of mine to visit the site, but I had been discouraged by the reports  of all those who had already attempted to do so. Access, it seemed, would be  difficult and dangerous on account of the dense vegetation and terrain. This  may well be the case at the height of summer, but it was certainly not my  experience on a cold, winter’s afternoon, when much of the vegetation had  already been hit by frost and had died back revealing the stonework and  exposing bare soil.

Orchideous House

Fig 1 – The garden complex at Penllegare

It was the contrast between the few  features that I had anticipated finding there (based on other people’s photographs)  and the extent of the ruin which met my gaze that made the most impact on me.  So well preserved were many of the details, that they could be compared  directly with the plan of the glasshouse published in the Journal of the Horticultural Society Vol. 1 of 1846, and reproduced  on this website in Richard Morris’s article. Against the ivy-clad gable end  could be seen part of the triangular, brickwork flue, behind which would have originally  stood the boiler and coalhouse (Fig. 2). At its base still stand several  massive boulders that would originally have been part of the waterfall that  John Dillwyn had built, having being inspired by Robert Schomburgk’s 1841 account  of his visit to the Essequibo River, Guiana, where he had seen and described the  “splendid vegetation which borders the cataracts of tropical rivers”.  The profile of the cistern, into which the  heated water would have cascaded, can still be seen, and this extends from a  short distance within the entrance to the aforementioned boulders.

Orchideous House

Fig 2

Along the sides of the stove house run the  remains of staging constructed from brick and slate, beneath which occur holes.  Through these would have passed the hot water pipes, essential for maintaining  the health of newly imported orchids in the cold, Welsh climate (Figs 3-4)

Orchideous House

Fig 3

It seems that Sir John Talbot Dillwyn  Llewelyn, elder son of John Dillwyn, following his father’s demise, used the,  by now, somewhat derelict orchid house to propagate Camellia seedlings, and the old cistern was promptly  converted into a raised bed, complete with a surrounding  brick wall that can still be seen (Figs 2-4). Indeed several mature camellias  grow close to the orchid house, having survived from the time that Sir John  lived at Penllergare (Figs 3-4). 

Orchideous House

Fig 4

In short, the old ‘Orchideous House’ at  Penllergare is still well worth a visit, if only to imagine how it would once  have appeared in all its glory. However, if you wish to avoid thorn-torn arms,  legs and clothes, do plan your visit for winter.

Acknowledgements 

The author thanks Richard Morris for  allowing him to use the illustration of the walled garden complex and Dr. Isabella Brey for taking the photographs.

 

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