Howick Hall gardens under blanket of snowdrops

PUBLISHED: 09:08 22 January 2010 | UPDATED: 16:37 20 February 2013

Robert Jamieson at Howick Hall

Robert Jamieson at Howick Hall

Feast your eyes on the carpet of snowdrops at one of the country's finest gardens and enjoy the first real signs that spring is on its way <br/>Words and pictures by Ann and Steve Toon

Pay no heed to the fashion pundits because for winter 2010 just one shade dominates - white. White is the new black.

Thats certainly the case at Howick Hall Gardens and Arboretum near Longhoughton in north Northumberland where everything is white this month. Stroll through the grounds on a sunny winters afternoon, when the grounds are open to the public, and as far as the eye can see theres white.

And unusually for Northumberland at this time of year its not snow thats caused this blanket white-out, its snowdrops. Literally thousands of them carpeting the earth and creating the years first major floral display.

At Howick Hall, voted Garden of the Year in 2009 by the magazine Gardens Illustrated, the delightful snowdrops unfurl and tumble daintily at your feet like fairy bells.
Whether youre a galanthophile or not (thats snowdrop fan for the uninitiated, from the Latin name for them, Galanthus, derived from the Greek words for milk and flower) the grounds are a sight for sore eyes after the bleakness of the winter. The delicate flowers really lift your spirits and signal spring is on the way.

The Hall has been the home of the Grey family since the early fourteenth century and its gardens were once voted one of the top five coastal gardens in the country. They certainly boast one of the most spectacular snowdrop collections and displays in the North of England, and, according to those who know about all things horticultural, the show just keeps getting better year on year.

The reason for this is the tender loving care and expertise lavished on the snowdrops by Howicks head gardener Robert Jamieson.

Together with his team and a band of hard-working volunteers thousands more snowdrop bulbs and new areas of the gardens have been planted up in the last couple of years. Selected clumps of the thousands of bulbs have been divided and replanted to help promote an even more impressive display of snowdrops.

Well continue with this again in 2010 and into the future for the next few years, says Robert Jamieson. There are bits away up in the woods were still expanding.

Thousands of bulbs have been divided and replanted to promote an even more impressive display

The great thing about snowdrops is theyre so reliable and resilient so you just know theyll come up every year, they just might be a bit earlier or a bit later depending on conditions.
Although hes on hand to see the many great floral displays in the gardens throughout the year, the snowdrops are still something special.

Seeing them come into flower is the first thing that happens in the gardens, and, after a hard winter, its a welcome sign things are starting up again. I suppose they stand out so much because theres nothing else around. They really dont have much competition. I often think if they flowered in July we probably wouldnt make such a fuss of them, he adds.
Several different varieties of snowdrop can be found in the grounds although, Galanthus nivalis, the common single snowdrop, were most familiar with, is responsible for producing the largest blankets of display.

But if you do visit, and wed definitely recommend it, be sure to look out for the famous Northumberland Yellow snowdrop which is dotted around the gardens. It might seem difficult to spot at first, but once youve got your eye in you should find some.

If youve never come across them they look exactly like any other snowdrop, at first glance, but the delicate flecks of emerald green that you see close up on conventional varieties are yellow on the local variety and the leaves are a different colour too. When you squat low and get up close it does seem quite different.

You see them in clumps around the place but not in drifts, says Robert Jamieson. He explains that although the snowdrop originated in north Northumberland its no longer unique
to the area.

Over the years a number of hybrid snowdrops have evolved, attracting snowdrop experts from far and wide who then grant the bulbs new cultivar names. When we visited last winter and caught up with Robert he explained how busy the snowdrop festival tends to become these days.

Its been mad, he said catching his breath as we toured the garden with him and asked if he minded posing for us among the flowers. Im used to it, he laughed. The telly had me in amongst them yesterday afternoon for Paul Mooneys slot; the local weatherman.
Its hard to believe but Howicks head gardener and his team are still discovering new snowdrops. Last year we found four or five new ones, he explains. They dont have names yet. Ive got this chap coming up from Durham whos a bit of an expert and well see then if theyre new cultivars or not.

The snowdrops, many of them planted between the two World Wars by Lady Grey, flower during February and March. The last member of the family to be called Grey was Lady Mary Grey, the elder daughter of Charles 5th Earl Grey.

She inherited the Estate from her father in 1963 and died in 2001. Howick Hall is now the home of her son Charles, second Lord Howick of Glendale, and his wife Clare.
When the Snowdrop Festival is over the real work of dividing and replanting the bulbs can begin in earnest. Volunteers step in to help and the back-breaking work can go on from the end of February and throughout March. We do as much as we can and work right through until the last snowdrop leaves start to disappear, Robert Jamieson says.

The garden team are still discovering new snowdrops

The gardens are open to the general public during the snowdrop season on several afternoons from early February onwards. The best time for the snowdrops is usually towards the end of the first week of the month, but it does depend on conditions in the garden over the winter. When we spoke to Robert Jamieson towards the end of last year he sounded confident they would be out around February 6.

You can check the Howick Hall website, for exact times and visiting information for the 2010 Snowdrop Festival.

And if you cant make the snowdrop spectacular this time round you can always pop along in March and check out the hosts of golden daffodils for which these special north-east gardens are also famous!

Snowdrops: Did You Know?

Snowdrops are seen as symbols of hope and purity and in the past were associated with the cleansing of the earth after winter.

In the time of Queen Victoria snowdrops were reckoned to be associated with the dead. Its thought this is because snowdrops grow so close to the ground that people thought this meant they were closer to people who had been buried.

The whole plant is poisonous.

Dont look out of the window now but a single snowdrop growing in the garden is supposed to foretell of impending disaster. Bear in mind we are talking folklore here.

Snowdrops are also known as Candlemas Bells. Candlemas Day falls on February 2. Theres an old rhyme that goes The snowdrop, in purest white array, first rears her head on Candlemas Day.

Perhaps because theyre so often seen growing in churchyards and cemeteries its considered unlucky to bring snowdrops into the house, but then it is against the law to pick wild flowers or dig up the bulbs.

In some parts of Eastern Europe snowdrops were rubbed on the forehead to relieve pain.
According to legend an angel is supposed to have turned snowflakes into snowdrops to give hope to Adam and Eve when they were banished from the garden of Eden.

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