Even when there’s snow on the ground in England, snowdrops start to break through the frozen soil: these tiny bulbs are the harbingers of spring.
This destination — a carpet of bright, white, delicate snowdrops rolling away under the stark trunks of an English beechwood — trumps the journey.
We have taken a chance on the English weather, notorious at the best of times, particularly fickle in February, placed all our trust in a weather app which foretold a break in the drizzle and set off for Welford Park along the very motorways which could have inspired Chris Rea’s Road to Hell.
English motorways can offer beautiful snapshots of the countryside — small farms, quaint cottages, quintessential villages, deer, perhaps, grazing on rolling downlands or red kites wheeling high — but not on a day when rain and spray slow traffic and smear views.
Enough about this journey.
Welford Park in Berkshire, persistently tops the lists of “best places to see snowdrops in England”. To the English, snowdrops are the harbinger if not of spring, then of the light at the end of the long winter. Clustered in parks, woodlands and roadside banks, this small flower with white bell-like petals braves snow, slush, mud and frost once the annual call to arms has triggered the bloom.
Welford Park, however, takes the snowdrop bloom game to new levels. It is a private country estate near Newbury, about an hour and a half from London. By the time we arrive the app’s predictions have proved accurate and we make our way along a disused railway to the estate’s entrance where the first taste of glory awaits us.
A dense ribbon of white glistens either side of an avenue of trees. It really is spectacular.
Its density and brightness render tree trunks and bare branches, bushes, buildings and the sky dull. I already understand why visitors flock to Welford Park for the annual spectacular — and I have not even seen the main display yet.
An admission fee of $12.50 each and some light banter about cameras gets us in and away down trails by rushing streams and waterfalls, past parkland, tumbled grasses and fallen trees ideal for the pheasants which populate the estate.
We come to the beech woods where snowdrops spread as far as we can see. A path around the woodland — a vague symmetry suggests the trees were once planted in lines long disrupted by nature — allows views from all angles of this magnificent extravaganza.
Seats are positioned at several points for those minded to survey the scene in a thick silence interrupted only by the cawing of the rooks scattered haphazardly among skeletal branches of hilltop trees.
But there is more to Welford Park than the dazzling attraction of the snowdrops.
The network of paths which weaves through the grounds gives us a firsthand experience of a working English estate: the view to the “big house” up the sweep of parkland from a rustic bridge crossing the stream, the pheasant pens, the line of gravestones by a stone wall marking the final resting places of a large number of beloved dogs.
It is an experience not easily found in England: it is not the brash, orchestrated and manicured museum of English National Trust homes and nor is it a mud-slushy working farm. It’s an unostentatious, delightful mix of family home and farm which welcomes visitors to its cosy tearoom and small gift shop while maintaining a degree of English aloofness: there is no access to the main house as it is a private residence. Welford Park plays host to the popular UK TV series The Great British Bake Off but no evidence of the chaos of a film set spoils the genteel atmosphere.
Instead an incongruous cluster of metal giraffes, one peering with surprise over a wall, indicates the faint eccentricity of the English gentry.
A round-towered church and its graveyard also sport snowdrops — there really is no need for flowers to be put on graves thanks to the inevitable white clusters around the gravestones and as we leave under darkening skies and a light drizzle, a small two-piece metal installation of — you guessed it — snowdrops reminds us we have experienced not just a genuine English country estate but a phenomenon in what must be England’s snowdrop capital.