Sugar and Snow

I’ve brought some snowdrops; only just a few/But quite enough to prove the world awake /Cheerful and hopeful in the frosty dew/ And for the pale sun’s sake. (From:’The Months – A Pageant’ by Christina Rossetti)

Recent triple whammy storm events meant we had to call off a weekend trip to the Derbyshire Dales to visit family and friends. In between those mighty gales a calm sunny Saturday gave us compensation by way of a cross county drive to Howick Hall gardens and its neighbouring stretch of coast.

Howick is a horticultural treat at any time of the year. The Grey family have been in residence since the early 16th century and the present house dates from 1782. The dynasty were not great art collectors or connoisseurs; the line’s great legacy, shared all year round with the visiting public, are the many acres of gardens and woodlands that surround and shelter their late C18th Palladian mansion.

Earl Grey tea is named for the second earl, (1764-1845) leader of the Whigs who oversaw the passing of the Great Reform Act of 1832 and whose memorial statue atop a pillar famously dominates the centre of Newcastle. What more fitting drink to round off our afternoon visit than that particular beverage, part of a cream tea, enjoyed in the faded elegance of the spacious tearooms overlooking the extensive flower borders. Formerly the grand ballroom this part of the west wing later became a hospital for wounded soldiers during World War One.

The Victorian church of St Michael & All Angels in the grounds houses the impressive marble tomb of the famous statesman. More unusually, as we discovered, works of art hang here too. Not paintings or drawings but a collection of 92 embroidered kneelers stitched by local craftspeople, inspired by images reflecting aspects of life and history on the estate, from family portraits and dramatic events to natural history, farming and horticulture. All skillfully rendered, with a tender touch, evoking the unique spirit of place and continuity.

The extensive grounds rotate their star attractions with each season. The family tradition of gardening and tree planting has resulted in a fine arboretum and impressive woodland garden. The informal and natural style promoted by the 5th earl, his wife Mabel and daughter Mary from the early to mid 20th century is still maintained today and it’s a delightful legacy to explore. Great bulb enthusiasts, the drifts of snowdrops they planted have happily spread and hybridised and this was the draw for today’s visit. The little flower loves damp soil in broadleaved woods and everyone appreciates it, seen en masse, as a welcome harbinger of Spring. I love the fact that US soldiers stationed in the British countryside in WW2 were nicknamed ‘Snowdrops’ for their green uniforms and white caps or helmets.

Snowdrop (Galanthus Nivalis) is a bulbous perennial that owes its official name to the Greeks, meaning milkflower, and was also known to them as ‘white violet’. First referenced in England in the late C16th as a garden ornamental it’s not until the late C18th that it’s recorded as growing wild – having escaped its confines in the formal garden and finding the perfect conditions of our climate to its liking.  Early pollinators, like bees, love snowdrops but its main way to spread is by bulb division. The bulbs themselves are poisonous when eaten but have long been used medicinally to treat headaches and nervous system injuries. In our own age a compound extracted from the bulb, galantamine, is used to treat dementia.

Sightings of yellow winter aconite and hellebores in amongst  the swathes of whiteness cheered the eye while the many types of trees imported from all round the world, soaring above us, were a graceful addition to the scene. Bare forms appreciated for their structure, with buds and emerging foliage in places hinting at glories to come. My favourite tree was a multi stemmed yew poised on crutch like branches above the steep slopes of the Howick burn, where yet more leggy snowdrops stretched skywards between dense ground cover of fern, bramble and bushes.

We drove on to the coast, an easy mile away through flat arable fields. Normally one can follow the burn through its wooded dene (valley) curving eastwards to meet the sea but the storms had brought down trees and that path has been temporarily closed. We followed the hard surfaced official English coast path instead, to eventually meet the stream where it debouches into the North sea, under an arched bridge carrying our path. Attention held by the rapid grey-green water of the burn below merging and losing identity within the brown choppy sea water, present here at high tide. Pressed on up the slope to look down towards Sugar Sands at sun set. Need to return another day to visit properly.

Our walk took us past photographers silhouetted on grassy headlands with serious looking kit, a variety of joggers and a clutch of well insulated fishermen by their tripods of resting rods and gear. Struck by stranded strata of eroding low cliffs, isolated from the main. We left the path to return higher up on a rutted field track, pausing as the light faded to take in the playful antics of a trio of hares over bare ploughed land by a low bank from whose cover they emerged and eventually disappeared back into. Another welcome sign of spring, which – we all agree – can’t come soon enough.

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