In the winter sunshine they glinted and gleamed, bright white flowers dotted around the lawns and wooded slopes of a glorious garden on the edge of Dartmoor in Devon.
And within minutes of opening its doors, the Garden House was busy with hordes of galanthophiles – snowdrop lovers – taking in the sight of a beloved flower that at this time of year provides a vivid reminder that warmer, cheerier seasons are ahead.
Last year’s lockdown meant that the annual snowdrop festival at the house in the village of Buckland Monachorum became an online-only affair, but on Friday the aficionados were allowed back in for the 2022 celebration.
“It’s wonderful to be here,” said Robert Stride, 63, who was meandering around the garden. “The snowdrops are a sign that spring is on the way, that new life is with us. This is such a natural place, so restful. After the couple of years we’ve had, the sight of the snowdrops lights up the soul.”
There is no shortage of snowdrops in the 10 acres of the Garden House, with about 375 varieties to enjoy, and the warm weather over Christmas means many are appearing earlier and in greater numbers than usual.
Self-confessed galanthophile Pat Eaton, a volunteer snowdrop adviser at the garden, was darting around pointing out some of the highlights, such the variety Galanthus ‘Ivy Cottage Corporal’, so called because it features two green Vs resembling a corporal’s stripes.
A charming snowdrop named after Shakespeare’s Ophelia nestles next to one called ‘Dionysus’, the god of the grape harvest, winemaking, orchards and fruit. They aren’t all white, either. ‘Primrose Warburg’, a dainty snowdrop with yellowish leaves, is among those making an early appearance this year.
The garden may be best known for ‘Trumps’, which has an elegant flaring pagoda shape, but Eaton said she was most delighted when she came across an example she didn’t recognise.
“I love the excitement of finding that something has come up and flowered that we hadn’t seen before.” One of the charms of the place is that nobody knows exactly how many types of snowdrops there are, and foraging animals and birds often shift the snowdrops around or bring new ones in.
Eaton pointed out one she found last year. “I’m not sure what it is, but it’s different. When I saw it, it was: ‘Whoopee I might have found a new one.’ Then comes the detective work, trying to piece its story together.”
The snowdrops bloom from September through to March, peaking in January and February, and are carefully labelled, tucked into herbaceous borders and scattered across banks, some in plain sight and others hidden away in secret corners. Just now they are poking up in small clumps, but within a few weeks there will be swathes of them. “The banks will be completely white with snowdrops,” said Eaton.
The house and gardens, once home to the vicars of Buckland Monachorum, trace their history back to 1305 and feature romantic ruins including a thatched barn and a tower with a spiral staircase.
A modern vicarage was built in the 1920s and just after the second world war was bought by Lionel Fortescue, a retiring Eton master, and his wife, Katharine, who set about renovating and developing their garden. They bequeathed the house and garden to the Fortescue Garden Trust, an independent charity that continues to run the property.
The collection was established by Matt Bishop, the former head gardener at the Garden House and one of the authors of the “galanthophile bible”, Snowdrops: A Monograph of Cultivated Galanthus.
Snowdrops collected by a second expert, Colin Mason, who travelled to Turkey and Georgia, sometimes searching on horseback for unusual examples, were bequeathed to the garden and have been added in.
The head gardener, Nick Haworth, said one of his favourites was Galanthus ‘Fly Fishing’, which has a long, slender pedicel (stalk) that looks like a fishing rod. But he said the garden does not advertise all its varieties. Some are so rare that a single bulb would be worth about £150 and they do not want fans to walk off with them.
“Snowdrops are very pleasing,” he said. “Lots of people have a story about them. I was brought up to think of them as magical, and looking at them here today, they really are special.”