What was once a working farmstead for the site is now a hub for enjoying and learning about how we can nurture our natural world, and a space to inspire the gardener in all of us.
The garden at Hyde Hall has been steadily evolving over 25 years, but was lacking key facilities, namely a dedicated education facility, a multipurpose event space and a restaurant to nourish visitors after their exploration of the extensive gardens. Two new buildings were commisioned to house these essential aspects of the visitor experience, the Clore Learning Centre and the Hilltop Lodge.
Hyde Hall is the charity’s largest site and encompasses 136 hectares of beautiful rolling hills, fields, pastures and woodlands; 10ha of which are managed gardens and visitor facilities, including the Hilltop Complex buildings. The site was originally a
farmstead dating from 1716, before it was donated to the RHS in 1993. Although a charming thatched barn provided a small restaurant on the hilltop, it was surrounded by tarmac and tractor sheds with a rudimentary former barn used for education activities.
The Hilltop Complex buildings form part of a wider programme to improve education facilities and the visitor experience across all RHS sites. It equips Hyde Hall with the facilities to drive forward the RHS Campaign for School Gardening, inspiring schools to provide children with gardening opportunities to enhance their skills and boost their development, improving physical and mental well-being.
Designed as a family of buildings which enclose and open up to the landscape so that it can be enjoyed in all seasons, it is a fitting location for the RHS to fulfil its long-term objective to inspire passion and excellence in the science, art and practice of horticulture. As well as supporting the RHS’s expanding education programme from 5,000 to an expected 10,000 visiting school pupils per year, the new buildings create a landmark to draw visitors through the landscape, and a vantage point from which to enjoy the views. The restaurant has been a particular success, overtaking the busy arrivals café in popularity, and even winning a Field to Fork Award for its delicious menu made with Hyde Hall grown produce.
Since its opening to the public in summer 2018, the project has seen a 13% increase in annual visitor numbers year on year, and an increase in the average amount of time spent at the attraction.
Built from robust materials - including glulam timber structures, zinc cladding, brick, and timber boarding - to withstand the exposed nature of the site, the new buildings are designed to sit in harmony with the farmstead vernacular, complementing a neighbouring thatched barn. The two buildings are distinguished by the profile and colour of their roofs, their most striking feature, purposely designed to be silhouetted against the sky.
The Clore Learning Centre is a new single-storey barn distinguished by a black zinc roof with four steep serrated pitches, which sits atop red brick wings enclosing a sheltered west-facing teaching garden. Inside, rooflights flood the building with daylight. A movable
wall offers flexibility to convert the open plan learning space into two smaller, intimate classrooms and retract again for larger groups. Both arrangements have direct access onto the teaching garden so that students of all ages - from toddlers (‘Little Acorns’) through to
retirees - can move freely between indoor and outdoor spaces.
The Hilltop Lodge is a substantially larger building, characterised by its pitched, red zincclad roofs with ridge lanterns and generous overhanging eaves that shelter full-height windows, oak-clad walls and visitors looking for shade. Like the Learning Centre, the Lodge
has a U-shaped plan opening onto a courtyard, with two barns flanking it. One barn houses the restaurant and the other a multipurpose event space. Internally, glulam timber columns and beams rise to support a linear ridge lantern. Through an interplay of simple forms, natural materials and natural light, Cullinan Studio has created a calm space where the eye is drawn to views across to Hyde Hall’s renowned Dry Garden and the rolling Essex hills beyond.
Sustainability has been a key driver for the design, as evidenced by the specification of durable materials and sustainably sourced timber, the inclusion of rainwater harvesting, photovoltaic panels, natural ventilation, and low energy light fittings. It was also crucial to
the design team that the buildings worked symbiotically with the gardens, enhancing the enjoyment of the gardens as well as creating a space in which to enjoy some of the produce which is grown and served on site.
Images: Paul Raftery