Six Snowdrop Gardens to brighten up winter

Dark winter approaches and what should the canny Silver Traveller do?

  1. Book a flight to somewhere hot and bright?
  2. Turn up the central heating  and order the groceries on-line?
  3. Embrace winter and visit a snowdrop garden?

This article is about option 3 though there is a much more expensive option – start to collect some of the special named snowdrops yourself. But more of that later.

Snowdrop gardens Snowdrop gardens attract thousands of visitors from February onwards. Literally thousands. There’s something about the tiny white bulbs poking out of a dark and cold soil that warms the heart and makes spring just that more imminent. From the many gardens that are accessible from my South Yorkshire home I have made a short survey of those that offer something special for those wishing to see snowdrops in their prime. Something for everyone really. Here are gardens that offer gorgeous walks though heavily planted woodlands bursting with bulbs, stately homes with displays and collections of rare bulbs, an alpine house where  one might view exquisite specimens under glass, and even a garden where one may scrutinise some of the choicest plants absolutely for free.

As I write this article it is the beginning of December and already, just outside our patio window, are two different flowering snowdrops. One came into flower on the first of the month, the second two days later. The earliest is one of my own selected seedlings, the other a charmer called Galanthus plicatus ‘Three Ships’, a clever reference to the well known carol. This snowdrop will reliably be in flower for Christmas Day. That said, snowdrops will be at their height in February and that is the time to visit the following gardens

A warning here. There is a lot of overly technical stuff written about snowdrops and reading some descriptions of the different varieties is as palatable as swallowing mouthwash. So I shall keep it simple.

Hodsock Priory, Nottinghamshire. Just off the A1 at Blythe near Worksop. Saturday 6th February to Sunday 6th March 2016.

Hodsock Priory The lovely country house, Hodsock Priory, is the scene of a remarkable annual pilgrimage as snowdrop lovers hone in to the North Nottinghamshire estate to be greeted by the owner, George Buchanan, in his green wellies, always courteous despite the hordes of visitors.  He will explain the state of play with the snowdrops, point out one or two improvements made in the year (trees planted, paths resurfaced) and wish you well. There is an extensive plant sales area and a top of the range marquee where one may while away the time during shower bursts, it often being perishing and very wet in February. Looking back on my yearly visits to Hodsock, it is often the hot pie and coffee in the warm tent that I remember with most affection. But wrap up well and there is a well signalled path round the estate to be enjoyed.

Everything is immaculate. Nasty tree roots are identified by whitewash, route markers guide the uninitiated, volunteers hover to help. The walk takes in a small lake, borders of hellebore, cyclamen, winter flowering shrubs and the rich plantings of snowdrops in formal and informal settings. In the woods there is a bonfire beside which one can eat a bacon sandwich and listen to a history talk from the manager.

It was here, twenty years ago, that I first discovered there were different varieties of snowdrop. So I was introduced to Galanthus nivalis ‘Magnet’, a larger than average flower and a must for your garden. I had to have one. They have spread since. That’s what snowdrops do.

So Hodsock for your all round snowdrop day. Nice people, visitors, staff and family. A warm welcome in a cold winter.

Easton Walled Gardens, Lincolnshire. Just off A1, 5 miles south of Grantham. 13th-21st February 2016.

Easton Walled Gardens When the vandals of the post war period demolished Easton Hall in 1951 they also abandoned the gardens, once described by no less an authority than President Franklin D Roosevelt as  ‘A dream of Nirvana… almost too good to be true.’ In 2001 Lady Ursula Cholmeley, a member of the family who have lived in the house since 1592, commenced the rejuvenation  of the gardens. Today the 12 acre once “impenetrable” gardens are a delight and never more so than during the snowdrop season, usually held here in the final two weeks of February.

One of the most wonderful sights in the garden is to walk alongside the River Witham where snowdrops are thickly planted in concert with yellow aconites and hellebores. The path slopes down and shows off the flowers to perfection. Snowdrops love moist soil; this and careful care has created snowdrop heaven. All six gardens featured here have memorable features. Easton’s river side view is worth the entrance money alone. But there is the cedar meadow to explore along with the cottage garden.

Easton is not necessarily my top choice for seeing a vast range of snowdrop varieties, though they are developing apace with new introductions each year. Under the guidance of the knowledgeable Jackie Murray, a range of snowdrops have recently been introduced to the new alpine bed. Jackie gives talks on snowdrops and it was from her that I purchased the venerable “Mrs McNamara” named after Dylan Thomas’ mother-in-law, Yvonne Macnamara, and discovered in her Hampshire garden. It had bulked up well in the past three years, a classic snowdrop flowering in upright clumps from early January. It was after visiting Easton, incidentally, that I decided to establish my own  colony of purple Crocus tommasinianus. Visiting a show garden triggers ideas.

Burton Agness Hall, Burton Agnes, Driffield, East Yorkshire. A614 York to Bridlington road, midway between Driffield and Bridlington. Saturday 6th February to Sunday 6th March 2016.

Burton Agnes Hall We pass Burton Agness Hall on our way to the coast, Bridlington and the coastal walks being nearby. The hall dates back in parts to 1173, with the main part constructed at the start of the 17th Century. It is a distinctive, handsome property well worth visiting for the house alone, although it may not be open in the snowdrop season. Outside the winter period the walled garden, crated in a  neo-Elizabethan style, is not to be missed. But back to dark February.

Both the previous destinations have areas of woodland covered in snowdrops but perhaps not so densely as those in the woods behind the Burton Agness Hall. The tall clumps are amazing, an uplifting experience on one of the “Snowdrop Spectaculars”. Here the experience is not one of identifying different varieties but of revelling in the naturalised planting of what I believe are Galanthus elwesii, the giant snowdrop. There is a well signposted walk and one is never more than a hand’s grasp from the flowers.

Outside in the courtyard racks of plants are offered for sale, including those very snowdrops admired in the grounds. There is always a broad range of Iris reticulata, including my favourite, the rich purple Iris histrioides ‘George’. Very tempting. What do they say about kids in sweetshops? Inside is a welcoming cafe with good food. A good cafe is an essential in February.

Goldsborough Hall, North Yorkshire. 5 miles east of Harrogate off the A59 between Harrogate and the A1(M). Saturday 13th February and Sunday 21st February 2016.

Goldsborough Hall is a 17th century, Jacobean stately home that is also a high class hotel. It is one of the most attractive buildings with a pale brick and so many windows one would believe there never had been a window tax in the 18th and 19th centuries. Honestly, if I were to design my ideal large house it would look very much like this.

Goldsborough Hall Ten years ago Mark and Clare Oglesby bought the house that, as with so many historic buildings, had gone through the usual changes of use from school, vacant occupancy and 20 years as a nursing home, along with a consequent deterioration. They have restored it to something like its former glory. It must have taken all their energy.

Luckily for us, Clare is also fond of gardening and snowdrops. Very fond, for the light woodland in the twelve acres of grounds is crammed with massed snowdrops of the finest quality including some of the rarest and choicest varieties in a natural wooded situation. There are fine shrubs, aconites, hellebores and a pots containing that most pure of crucus, the white “Snow Bunting”. And it was here, two years ago, that I met another lady,  Galanthus “Mrs Thompson”, dominating a group of sometimes far more expensive specimens. “Mrs T.” is eccentric. Always tall and striking, often there will be more than one flower per plant and each one may have upwards of three petals of the purest white; one of mine had five petals last year. I’m aiming for six  this year.

Do take a look at the Lime Tree Walk, with trees planted by a collection of royals since 1922. The gardens tended and supervised by Clare and head gardener, Ray Farrer, are very special at any time of year. Be aware though that the garden is only open to the public on two days in February.

You will discover an excellent stall selling superb snowdrop varieties and staffed by some terrifically knowledgeable and persuasive plantsmen and women. My wife had to drag me away.

RHS Garden Harlow Carr, Harrogate, North Yorkshire. Open daily all year.

The HQ in the North of England is a must for any gardener. I have to say that it can be cold there in February, or July/August/September for that matter.  “Bettys”, the doyen of tea rooms, has a cafe there providing a variety of delicious if not cheap meals. There exists another facility for the less than hardy snowdrop lover. We’ll come to that.

RHS Garden Harlow Carr The winter border has something to offer on even the coldest day. You will be amazed by the variety of winter flowering heathers. Dogwoods’ coloured stems brave the most scything winds and interspersed amongst the shrubs are varieties of snowdrops. All are clearly labelled so take a notebook. I have never been to Harlow Carr without  making some new discovery. There always seems to be a plant in flower whatever the weather.

Ah, that North Yorkshire weather! What would make February even more tolerable is to be able to observe snowdrops in comfort and that is exactly what the 80ft alpine house provides. Whatever the season or weather the alpine house has pots of alpines at eye level, truly magical in their range of colour, leaf and form. The alpine house of course is not to be confused with the tropical glasshouses of Kew. Here there is shelter from the rain but ventilation to allow for wind flow and only enough heating to stop frost. Cool, ideal conditions. Nature is given another boost as the specimens are rotated  in large part, rehearsed out of sight until the big night when in a state of perfection they are plunged into beds of gravel for their star performance.  No ordinary gardener can hope to compete but it is good to dream. And amongst the alpines, in their winter season, are the collectors’ snowdrops.

Here is the chance to examine those distinguishing marks in fine detail. The current fashion for galanthopiles  – there, I’ve used the word – is for green in the petals, either as spots or blotches or a blush of emerald. Then there are the yellow snowdrops. Even more fashionable! Snowdrops are a frisky species and have a variety of offspring, seized on by collectors who charge inordinate sums for anything different. Thus three years ago a single bulb of Galanthus “Green Tear” raised £360 only to be trounced by the yellow  Galanthus “Elizabeth Harrison” achieving £725 at auction on eBay. 2015 broke even these records with £1390 (plus postage!) being shelled out for the yellow Galanthus plicatus ‘Golden Fleece’ with yellow spots on each of the three outer petals. I was well satisfied at Harlow Carr by Galanthus “Wendy’s Gold”, a lovely yellow ‘drop that has thrived in our garden. I saw it first in the alpine house in comfort, not lying in a prone position on chilly grass.

Holehird Gardens, Windermere. Off the A591 Windermere to Ambleside Road,  one mile along A592. Open throughout the year.

Holehird Gardens Holehird Gardens is the home of the thriving Lakeland Horticultural Society and is entirely free to enter. Whatever the weather volunteers may be seen toiling away in a labour of love. In idyllic surroundings the gardens never disappoint. In the summer the courtyard herbaceous displays are sumptuous and the rockery is huge with a variety of plants at every twist and turn. There are two small alpine houses packed with plants in a natural setting. In winter the remarkable Daphne Bholua “Jacqueline Postill”, sends out a heady scent to fill the air. It is the shrub in our garden more remarked on than our snowdrops.

At least one of the volunteers knows their snowdrops for throughout the garden and particularly in the rockery are found the largest range of bulbs in any of the above gardens. Most are identified though others, perhaps for reasons of security, rely on their sheer beauty to attract the visitor.

As I said, the gardens are free to enter. Donations are welcome and deserved.

I am unable to close the article without some suggestions for snowdrops to look out for.  Six gardens, six snowdrops: With one exception, they will not break the bank.

  1. ‘Viridapice”: will give you those green blotches at a low price.
  2. “Lady Beatrix Stanley”: a double with charm, links to Hodsock in origin.
  3. “Kite”: distinctive and showy with two flowers.
  4. “Trump”: strong green spot and vigorous.
  5. “Brenda Troyle”:  a large flower and clumps up well.
  6. ‘E.A.Bowles’: you may have to cancel the cruise to afford it but arguably the greatest snowdrop.

Silver Travel Advisor recommends Brightwater Holidays.

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Ian Lumsden

Retired deputy headteacher & writer

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