Many years ago, I used to drive off to a remote nursery or garden centre, somewhere out in the sticks to be presented with a weather beaten field of mud, several tonnes of steel columns and purlins. All of which we would have to bolt together as there had been no workshop fabrication.
There would also be numerous piles of Aluminium ridges, eaves beams and glazing bars plus crate upon crate of razor sharp large glass panels.
The client would have cleared an area for us, which could have been anything up to an acre or greater, ready for our construction work. A somewhat daunting prospect usually spending the first evening locating the best local hostelry and preparing ourselves for the challenge by downing pints of beer and checking out local labour to support the team.
We used to live in a caravan on site . . ` You were lucky’, we would have dreamed of living in a caravan on a muddy field . . which we did find very cosy indeed, putting the electric fire on an hour or so before finishing work, as comfort was something that we warmly welcomed after working in a mud bath and regularly driving rain or freezing cold winds. The evenings often found us visiting the local fish and chip shop, for double helpings and on occasions, hijacking the TV room of nearby hotels, where we would cheekily but politely say to the residents in the room, ‘didn’t they realise that Manchester United’ or another team are playing tonight.
Just imagine a sea of mud which would often come over the top of your wellington boots when carrying heavy lengths of steel. The challenge initially was to dig some 30 or more holes @ 3 or 4ft deep, before rapidly pouring concrete into these before they collapsed or filled up with water.
The next step was to erect large bays of steel framework with stanchions supporting roofs some 30ft high with valleys between. These could be a 100 or sometimes 300ft long multi bays.
Although previously challenging for the precision necessary, our next step was even more daunting. Into this steel framework, we would have to introduce an intricate aluminium roofing system ready to receive glass units some 28 & 3/4 ins by 64 ins (the old Dutch light size) of some 4mm thick razor sharp glass, which was certainly not toughened and if you made a mistake, liable to cut you in half.
I do recall keeping some local hospital’s ‘Needlework Department’ busy on occasions. Little wonder we used to disappear to a local hostelry or invade the TV room of a nearby hotel at the end of each day!
Just imagine putting up such a building and knowing that there would be some 1,000 or more huge panels of glass to be installed within the roof and all razor sharp – with all the small tolerances (as the manufacturers would call them – inaccuracies we knew them to be). It was often found that in a bottom left hand corner, one of the large panels of glass would fit perfectly but in the opposite end, maybe some 200ft away, the much wished for accuracy had not happened when attempting to fit a test piece of glass, the bottom right hand corner could be some 2ins. out of square !!!
Back to the drawing board and this would often mean the whole building had to be delicately adjusted throughout, which meant all our previous efforts had to be dismantled and repositioned with the assistance of thin steel wire ropes and bottle screws, a bit like those used on a yacht, to pull it into shape. It would mean taking off some ¼ ins at each linking position to make the appropriate adjustments and to say that this was an intricate and exceedingly frustrating exercise, would be a profound understatement. Often to be conducted walking in a sea of mud, together with driving wind and rain.
When I look back now, I often wonder where we found the strength of mind but my philosophy was I do recall thinking that if we weren’t able to achieve the goals set to us, someone would come along and do so and if that were to be the case, why would we not buckle down and meet the challenge.
Our huge satisfaction used to come at the end of these jobs when we handed it over to the nursery or garden centre owner. I recall a massive job we constructed in South Wales where the system’s designer M.D. came on site and the nursery owner told him that he was very impressed with our work and was amazed that in heavy rain, there were no leaks – this was greeted by the M.D. saying that ‘these buildings were not supposed to be completely waterproof’ – so you can imagine the pride we felt at that time.
Originally these greenhouses were built for plants and tomatoes but many we built have now been turned into elegant sales areas at Garden Centres and are still structurally sound. I have visited several in much later years and feel much satisfaction of our construction capabilities and workmanship. Many of these structures previously designed for tomatoes and chrysanthemums have, with a little additional work been turned into sumptuous areas within garden centres, selling far more delicate products.
Many, happy memories and lots of fun. I recall one of my builder friends from our home town coming to work with me in Cambridge and our traditional meal then was steak and kidney pie with a big tin of beans and a few tomatoes we would rescue from a nearby greenhouse. In the middle of the night, he had a call of nature and just managed to get his feet half in wellington boots and went out into a sea of mud in the pouring rain in only his underpants and didn’t quite make it to the loo! He was still re-counting his misfortune many weeks later and even to this day, it’s still not forgotten when we meet for a beer and to reminisce.
I also recall a manufacturer’s representative coming out in his smart suit on a windy and raining day, putting on his shiny green wellington boots and before getting half way over to where we were working, he sunk into the mud . . one of the boots was never recovered.
Great times and those I wouldn’t have wished to miss for the world but somewhat far removed from the elegant Orangeries and Grand Sun Rooms that we are now constructing.