Jason Goodwin explains the origins of his garden glass house; a twinkling, relaxing spot in summer, but come winter, a place where no one dare go but the mice.
We inherited the glasshouse from the most recent-tenants-but-one. The carpenter who built it for them made it big, 18ft by 12ft, as a lean-to. It has a concrete floor and a low concrete wall, windows all round and a roof made of three sheets of corrugated plastic.
They were clear when they first went up, but they’re made of square tubes, for rigidity and perhaps insulation, and the tubes have filled with algae and dead insects. The winds and the frosts have cracked them, so they let in the water in places.
‘The rain slid down the pillars from rusty washers in the plastic roof’
The whole building is damp and rotten as a pear. Only the glass holds it all together. A couple of summers ago, noticing it sagging and rotting like a bad tooth, we found some old paint and painted its face, orange for the base and sugar-bag blue for the woodwork. I shaved the double doors, too, so that they close.
When the glass is clean and the sun is out, the whole place looks almost twinkly, but in the rain, under a gloomy sky, it looks like a teahouse in a run-down corner of Uzbekistan, on the cinder road between the tractor factory and the Soviet-era cement works.
Originally, the roof was supported on wooden pillars, between which the carpenter built a table with drop ends, which could sit eight people. A vine that comes into the glasshouse through a vent fans out across the roof in summer and plunges the insides into a cool green shade.
They were a convivial family, the people who built the glasshouse, they threw lots of parties and lunches; our neighbours still talk about them with affection. By the time we arrived, the glasshouse was already bust and lurching. The rain slid down the pillars from rusty washers in the plastic roof and, one day, I put my foot through the table and crashed down rather painfully, taking a section of it with me. After that, I took out the table and one of the pillars, as it didn’t seem to be doing very much, which gave us a lot more room.
‘The January gales have ripped the door from two of its three hinges, but it is still standing’
And then, as room does, it started to fill up. We use it to store deck chairs and croquet hoops and outdoor cooking stuff, the fire bucket and the tripod. The back wall is crammed with old chests of drawers and mirrors in loose frames.
A carpenter’s bench fits nicely between the doors and the corner and there’s a line of staging under the windows facing south. There’s even a yellow table where you can eat in summer, a gallery of chairs and a sofa missing a cushion where I like to lie on autumn evenings, reading a book or at least holding onto one.
The poodle forms a puddle under my outstretched legs. Yellow leaves whirl around outside, but inside, the grapes dangle dark and mildewed and a tiny wren, with no discernible head, but a spiky long beak, comes in through the open door and hops about. The poodle stirs and the wren makes a short, whirring flight from the tip of a fishing rod to a branch of the vine.
Then comes winter and nobody goes near. The sofa gets damp, the windows fog and beetles fall from the roof and lie dead in the dried-up church candles. The January gales have ripped the door from two of its three hinges, but it is still standing. The glass is holding up the roof.
One sunny morning, I open the doors and inhale a rich, alcoholic smell of damp and decay. Someone has burrowed into a box of blood and bonemeal, leaving porridge on the bench. Piles of flowerpots are slumped against the glass. I start sweeping rubbish into an empty sack, clearing the way for seed trays on upturned flowerpots, in an effort to thwart the mice, and get it ready for another year.
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