A ranger-guided walk through one of Scotland's grand old estates teaches you a thing or three about snowdrops…
“I'm sorry, I can't take the call; the wife wants us all to go around and admire snowdrops,” the husband was grumpily explaining to a colleague. “Oh yes, precious snowdrops, delicate, porcelain-white flowers which like to grow when its frightfully cold, and the ground is such a squelchy mess,” added the daughter bitingly, pulling on stout winter-boots. Clearly, my family didn't share my giddy enthusiasm for walking around historic-gardens and marvelling at wintry-blossoms. But then, I had already booked us in for a guided-tour of the gardens at the Hopetoun House, one of Scotland's finest stately homes, which was specially thrown open one Sunday (early February) as part of the country-wide Snowdrop Festival.
After that somewhat-sour start, I foolishly believed, things could only look-up. And it did, briefly, when we pulled-in to the impressively long drive of the Estate, the classical façade (designed by William Bruce, back in the 18th Century) looking magnificent even in that weak wintry light. But no sooner did we purchase our tickets and gather — a group of local garden-enthusiasts and us — in front of Peter Stevens, the Ranger, than he delivered the bad news. The snow had cleared-up all right, but the gunmetal-grey sky might not hold-off until the end of the walk. But, that was hardly the worst of his worries, as the incredibly cold conditions meant that the snowdrop displays were really not up-to scratch. And this, certainly, did seem like a blow; and for the next few minutes, I carefully studied the top of my shoes.
But, I really need not have worried. For, the moment we sighted our first snowdrop (looking quite sorry for itself, in a forlorn clump of, er, one), Peter stooped down, tenderly lifted the head, and introduced us to the pendulous, bell-shaped flower, aptly nicknamed the ‘dingle-dangle'. With those two little words, Peter reclaimed the morning back from certain disaster, because, if the reaction of the family was anything to go by (pointing at the flower, saying ‘dingle-dangle' over and over again, collapsing in a giggly-heap) it was sure to be a delightfully memorable afternoon.
Where Peter led, snowdrop-notes in hand, we followed, willingly, and thoroughly enjoyed his tales of old-Britain! Swinging by the garden path — with its lovely flowerbeds and fetching views of the side-façade — we had the first glimpse of the famous white-carpets. Peter, of course, was very apologetic about it, in a classic British-understatement sort of way, but to us, it was breathtakingly beautiful. The flowers, sitting on emerald-green stalks, their pristine-white heads hanging down (as if in prayer?) were like little pearls sewn onto an enormous, shimmering bronze-gold gown — a sight that had us gasping in wonder.
Wandering around the very vast, 300-year-old estate, we came across several original features, and the ‘ha-ha' in particularly stood-out. According to Peter, it's a purpose-built stonewall that cleverly kept out the livestock, but didn't obstruct the sweeping views (the land where the cattle grazed was lower) and it earned its name as when somebody fell down, there was much laughter. There was certainly a lot of it at the explanation, and after admiring the grand tree-lined avenue (where the gentlemen of yore used to drive their chariots, for a spot of post-prandial fun) and the sheltered woodland walk for the ladies, we moved on to meet the very many trees of the Estate, the majority with diverting histories.
After duly appreciating several other blankets of white (and in the process, learning to tell apart the many species, its Latin name — Galanthus, and other snowdrop trivia) we were ready to make a dash to the ranger-centre for our much-deserved refreshments. Peter, however, had one last surprise for us…he led us — a red-nosed, frozen-toed, huddling-for-warmth bunch — to the edge of the Estate, by the Forth Estuary, and briefly, we forgot the unbearable cold.
We didn't care a jot for ‘Fair-Maids of February' (one of snowdrop's many monikers) or houses that look like they've leapt out of Jane Austen novels. For, right in front of our eyes, was a herd of majestic deer, grazing peacefully, on a mustard-green slope, dipping gently towards the Forth and its splendid bridges. We managed one last collective ‘ahh', and then retired to the toasty-warm interiors for tea and shortbread, wondering aloud if the lovely snowdrops would oblige us and move their flowering-season from a cruelly-cold February to a balmier May?
* Hopetoun House is about a half-hour car ride from Edinburgh. The magnificent property and its fantastic wooded grounds are a real treat to explore, particularly in the warmer spring-summer months, when it is open to the paying public
* Ranger-led walks are a great way to get to know the sprawling grounds of historic houses. They're interspersed with knowledgeable, and often humorous insights and are well worth the inexpensive charge (for example Hopetoun House, grounds only — £3.70 adults, £2.20 children)
* For information about more Gardens and historic houses, log on to visitscotland.com