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The Woolbeding Glasshouse and Silk Route Garden

The Woolbeding Glasshouse with glass segments open
The Woolbeding Glasshouse Opening, Woolbeding Gardens, West Sussex | © National Trust Images/Laurence Perry

The National Trust has supported The Woolbeding Charity to construct and open to the public a bespoke new glasshouse and gardens, designed by Heatherwick Studio. The striking ten-sided glasshouse and landscaped series of garden zones exhibit plants, shrubs and trees that depict the key regions of the Silk Route.

The Woolbeding Glasshouse

Heatherwick Studio has unveiled its latest project, a kinetic glasshouse set on the edge of the gardens here at Woolbeding.

This unfolding structure provides the focal point to a new garden that reveals how much the ancient Silk Route – which linked the Western world with the Middle East and Asia – has influenced English gardens of today. It features ten steel ‘sepals’ with glass and aluminium façade which take four minutes to open, creating an immense 141m2 space in the shape of a crown.

The glasshouse draws inspiration from the spirit of Victorian ornamental terrariums. It deploys cutting-edge engineering to provide a functional protective structure while at the same time offering a beguiling, decorative element to the new Silk Route Garden.

On warm days, the glasshouse opens its ‘sepals’ using a hydraulic mechanism to allow the plants access to direct sunshine and ventilation, while in colder weather the structure will remain closed, providing shelter to a collection of subtropical species.

The Woolbeding Glasshouse and Silk Route Garden, Woolbeding Gardens
The Woolbeding Glasshouse and Silk Route Garden, Woolbeding Gardens, West Sussex | © National Trust Images/Laurence Perry

A crowning achievement

The glasshouse was conceived and developed by The Woolbeding Charity, working closely with the National Trust, to stand within Woolbeding Gardens, owned by the National Trust, but home for many years to the late Simon Sainsbury and his partner Stewart Grimshaw, who still lives at Woolbeding. Over three decades they restored the house and generously endowed the gardens, introducing many classic and contemporary elements.

'The Heatherwick Glasshouse represents the cutting edge of technical design and engineering, but it’s also a restoration of something that is part of Woolbeding’s history,' says Mark Woodruff of The Woolbeding Charity.

'It stands as a crowning achievement in contemporary design, to house the flora of subtropical south west China at the end of a path retracing the steps along the Silk Route, from temperate Europe and across mountains, arid lands, and high pastures, that brought the plants from their native habitat in Asia to come to define much of the richness and glory of gardening in England.

'Joining the William Pye water sculpture and Philip Jebb’s noble neo-classical folly, both monuments to the fallen great trees that they succeeded, the Heatherwick Glasshouse and new Silk Route Garden imbue Woolbeding with even more delight, beauty and pleasure for all who come, in what Disraeli called "the loveliest valley in the land".'

Ariel view of the open Woolbeding Glasshouse, at Woolbeding Gardens West Sussex, with plantings visible inside,
An aerial view of the Woolbeding Glasshouse open, showing the shape of a lotus flower | © Hufton+Crow

The Silk Route Garden

The Silk Route Garden surrounding the Glasshouse invites visitors on a 12-step journey through a landscape influenced by the ancient trading route between Asia and Europe where commodities such as silk were exchanged and, along which many plants species, were brought back to Britain for the first time, such as rosemary, lavender and fennel.

A winding path allows visitors to move through over 300 species and 12 distinct regions of the Silk Road. From Mediterranean evergreens where visitors can enjoy a rare variety of Mullein (Verbascum sp.) grown from a seed brought here by a friend of Woolbeding Gardens, through to the richly scented Gallica roses, now so popular in England but originally introduced to Europe by traders from Persia.

The Glasshouse itself shelters an impressive, rare specimen of an Aralia Vietnamensis which provides shade for a collection of tender ferns growing alongside umbrella trees, magnolias and bananas.

An exciting new structure

General Manager, Adam Hastie says, 'I am delighted that after six years of development, design, planning, construction, testing and planting, the glasshouse and silk route gardens are now open to visitors.

'Not only have we created an exciting new structure within a beautifully landscaped space, but the meandering garden zones are a fascinating way to enjoy both familiar and new plant species of the Silk Route. I am grateful to the generosity of the Woolbeding Charity for funding this project and to the many individuals and organisations who have brought Stewart Grimshaw’s vision to life in such a stunning and innovative way.'

How to see the Heatherwick Glasshouse

Entry to the Glasshouse is included in our general admission tickets. If you would like to see only the Glasshouse, without viewing the rest of the garden, there are a small number of free tickets each Thursday and Friday to see only the Glasshouse within a pre-determined time slot, but these must be booked in advance. To obtain a ticket, please email the property directly at Please note, free Glasshouse Only tickets do not allow admission to the rest of the garden.

Evening light in July on the south front of Woolbeding House (not National Trust) at Woolbeding Gardens, West Sussex

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