Gardens: Spectacular snowdrops on show at Colesbourne Park

PUBLISHED: 10:02 27 January 2010 | UPDATED: 16:37 20 February 2013

Naturalised planting at Colesbourne

Naturalised planting at Colesbourne

The snowdrops at Colesbourne Park are guaranteed to brighten a winter day

Theres something deceptively simple about the drifts of naturalised snowdrops at Colesbourne Park. Spread out under magnificent old trees, they suggest a show that owes more to nature than to man. Add in Colesbournes horticultural pedigree and it is easy to imagine the garden was always destined for success. In fact, its place as one of the countrys foremost snowdrop gardens is down to sheer hard work and more than a little luck.

Colesbournes gardening story began when it was the home of eminent Victorian plant hunter Henry John Elwes. He introduced many plants and trees to cultivation, among them Galanthus elwesii, discovered in Turkey in 1874, and today a commonly grown snowdrop.

Colesbourne was regarded as one of the best gardens in the country from a plantsmans point of view, explains garden manager Dr John Grimshaw. I dont think it was a flower garden though.

It was Henry Johns love of trees and snowdrops in particular that lies behind the survival of his legacy. Unlike many other plants, they withstood the period of neglect, brought about by war and depression, that the garden suffered following his death in 1922. Indeed, it was not until the property was taken over by Henry Johns great grandson, Sir Henry Elwes and his wife Carolyn in 1962 that the gardens fortunes began to look up. Even then progress was not immediate as the couple were gardening novices.

I had not gardened before, recalls Lady Elwes. I used to help my grandmother but her idea of using grandchildren was for weeding.

But there was no garden here, she adds.

Todays raised beds full of choice snowdrops were non-existent and the front garden was lawn where Lady Elwes kept geese, thinking their manure would improve the grass.

Naturally they killed the grass off.

Indeed, it was only pressure from her husbands family that led her to start hunting out the long-neglected snowdrops.

I had aunts who used to come and nag me. They were interested in the garden and felt it was dreadful, letting the family down if you didnt take an interest in the snowdrops.

Once I started and discovered how they rewarded me, it became a mania and I could not stop digging and spreading them. Then the next year waiting to see if you had put them in the right place it was so exciting!

Gradually Lady Elwes was introduced to the close-knit world of the galanthophiles snowdrop enthusiasts and accompanied the aunts to snowdrop lunches and talks.

They all argued like mad. The lunches were very exciting.

Yet, despite extending her range of snowdrops by swapping bulbs with other growers, Colesbourne might have remained her private collection but for the church bells and a thief.

In 1997 the couple were asked to open their garden for a tour by a group of galanthophiles and, knowing the church bells needed re-hanging, agreed. They made 400, not enough to finish the job, and decided to open the following year to raise more money.

What happened next seemed at first a devastating blow, but possibly was the making of Colesbourne. A clump of rare yellow snowdrops, discovered by Lady Elwes in the garden, was dug up and stolen.

There must have been maybe 100, says Lady Elwes. Luckily, I had extracted six or seven of the best and put them somewhere else.

Furious at the loss, she wrote to everyone in the snowdrop world, from those on the trip to the Dutch register of bulbs, determined to stop the thief selling the bulbs on. What it did was raise Colesbournes profile something the couple did not appreciate until they opened the following year.

We expected maybe another 500. We got 1,600. It was terrifying. The police couldnt work out why the roads were blocked. You couldnt get people in or out.

Lady Elwes ended up in the river in chest waders trying to direct traffic, and fences were taken down to ease the congestion.

It was just a nightmare but we did hang the bells.

Such was the interest in the garden, they decided to open on a regular basis, and now the snowdrop days attract visitors from all over the country, both passionate enthusiasts and those just wanting a first glimpse of spring. Meanwhile, snowdrop study days satisfy those looking for more in-depth knowledge.

What we can show at Colesbourne is the best of both worlds. There is an interest for the galanthophiles, for the people who just love flowers and are anxious to get out and see something after a hard winter, and for everybody in-between.

Todays collection numbers around 250 varieties spanning the full range of types and taking the display from October through to March. One of the most striking is Colossus, which, as its name suggests, is a large imposing snowdrop with broad leaves. Comet has long, shapely flowers held on an arching stem, Diggory has distinctive crimped outer segments while those on South Hayes are pagoda-shaped.

Some of the collection are pure white, with none of the usual green markings. Among them is The Bride, a tricky to cultivate variety.

I always say its like a Victorian bride pale, wan and consumptive, comments Dr Grimshaw.

Then there are the yellow snowdrops, including Lady Elphinstone, which resembles a fried egg, Wendys Gold, a large, vigorous snowdrop, and Carolyn Elwes, the bulb that was stolen from Colesbourne. Doubles include Ophelia and Hippolyta.

Many people dont realise that snowdrops can be scented: G. x allenii smells of bitter almonds, while Ginns Imperati has been likened to Vim.

All snowdrops have a degree of scent and warmth brings it out but you dont normally notice it because its too cold, says Dr Grimshaw.

Lady Elwes recommended putting just three blooms of S Arnott into a warm kitchen overnight.

The scent of honey in the morning is so strong.

It is the huge drifts of this and other beautiful snowdrops that are one of the delights of Colesbourne. Every year careful note is made of congested clumps and come summer, when the bulbs are dormant, these are divided and replanted, with some kept for sale.

I can plant 10 bulbs a minute for snowdrops, notes Dr Grimshaw wryly.

His arrival as garden manager in 2003 saw a fresh impetus at Colesbourne. A respected author he co-wrote the definitive book on snowdrops and has just published one about trees he brought much needed horticultural expertise to the garden.

It obviously had potential, but I could see the horticultural skills were not here to make that potential happen.

One of the first projects was making a spring garden under ancient yews, which were cut back to create more light. A chipped bark path meanders past borders edged with logs and full of early stars, such as hellebores, epimedium, pulmonaria, cyclamen and, of course, snowdrops. Foliage from bergenia, ferns and lamium add texture and bulk to the display and set off the early blooms.

The herbaceous border was also revamped and more spring bulbs were added throughout the garden.

I never knew how we managed what we did that first year 55,000 bulbs and made the spring garden, says Dr Grimshaw.

More recent developments have seen planting alongside the lake increased, in particular dogwoods and willows chosen for their colourful winter stems. The snowdrops have been spread further through the woodland and more trees have been added to stand alongside the beautiful mature specimens. Suitably for Henry Johns former home, many of the new arrivals are unusual, including a Mexican oak, the coffin tree, Taiwania, so called because the Chinese use the wood for coffins, a eucalyptus Dr Grimshaw raised from seed, and a rare Chinese walnut.

Underlining everything they do is an awareness of the need to keep the workload down; aside from Dr Grimshaws part-time assistance, there is one full-time gardener and the couple themselves.

Its no use making a garden you cant cope with, he explains.

So much of the work involves managing what is already there, adapting things as trees and plants grow, and planting for the future.

Constant change is what happens in gardens, growth and change. Managing an historic landscape in a place like this is part of the challenge.

It is a challenge he obviously relishes and his contribution to Colesbournes future is one that Sir Henry, the Lord Lieutenant of Gloucestershire, and Lady Elwes fully recognise.

John has opened up the garden and cut down trees we would never have dreamed of cutting down, producing space for wonderful new plantings, says Lady Elwes.

This garden is no longer the remains of an overgrown Victorian garden. Its been given a new lease of life. It needed a new vision and John has brought that new vision.

Colesbourne Park, on the A435 between Cheltenham and Cirencester, starts its 2010 season on January 30. It is open Saturday and Sunday and every weekend in February from 1pm, last entry 4.30pm. Admission is 6, children enter free, dogs welcome on a short lead. There will be teas and plants for sale. Snowdrop study days are on February 18 and 25. Weekday guided tours are available for groups, call 01242 870264/870567 for more information, or visit

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