The whites of spring

Every year, thousands of people make a very special, somewhat cryptic note in their diaries for a very important date in February – Hodsock Priory. This year, that date is February 4, and for them it marks the arrival of spring.

For at least five weeks, several acres of woodland and gardens in the grounds of the 19th-century country house estate, near Blyth, will be a carpet of white as millions of snowdrops announce that, hopefully, the worst of winter is over.

This February it’s the 21st year that this humble little flower has welcomed visitors. A few hundred turned up for the first opening, last year 20,000 defied the appalling weather to make the journey.

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The best was in 2002, when an astonishing 40,000 people descended on Hodsock Priory (which has never actually been a priory), a couple of minutes’ drive from Blyth, a village remembered by many older drivers when the A1 was the main route from the North to London. Before the M1 came along, Blyth used to be overwhelmed by the volume of traffic, much like Hodsock was overwhelmed by the sheer weight of numbers in 2002. But things change.

“Back in 2002, we just didn’t have the facilities then to deal with so many,” admits Sir Andrew Buchanan, who inherited the estate more than 40 years ago. “But now we have much better facilities.”

As we tour the gardens on a day when the sky is an intense blue and a lazy wind runs across rich, flat farmland, bringing with it the bite of mid-winter, there are no snowdrops to be seen. But here and there life still shows through the rich Nottinghamshire soil; a clump of very early daffodils defy the season, while the brilliant scrubbed-white stems of birch trees, and the colourful stems of dogwoods, make the most of the unseasonal sun.

Sir Andrew is taking me on a tour of where, come February, the first visitors will step out to gaze at the millions of tiny white flowers of Galanthus nivalis and their many snowdrop cousins which have made Hodsock Priory almost a place of pilgrimage. Some people will be returning for the 21st occasion; many will be making the journey for the first time, and a considerable number will be travelling from far afield to witness one of the miracles of spring.

Next month Sir Andrew and his family are hoping that at least 25,000 people will turn up over the five-week festival of flowers. For the past two years, the harsh winters have cut the numbers of visitors, so the Buchanans are crossing their fingers that things can only get better. And so far, so good. The snowdrops, they know, will still appear, and the careful division of established clumps, and replanting, ensures that there will always be more, rather than fewer, of the magnificent little blooms.

But on this special winter day, despite not a snowdrop in sight as we walk the walk, it’s not difficult to imagine what the gardens and woodlands will look like in a few weeks’ time. Everywhere are the small green shoots which hint at the promise of a flowering marvel to come.

“We lost quite a few plants over the last two winters because of the severe weather,” says Sir Andrew, the Lord Lieutenant of Nottinghamshire. “But the snowdrops are remarkably tough little flowers and we are very lucky because we have the perfect soil conditions for them.”

That soil is also perfect for the many trees which Sir Andrew has planted since he moved to live at Hodsock Priory more than 40 years ago. He has seen many changes since then – particularly in agriculture and the running of his 700-acre farm. But perhaps the greatest change of all has been the revolution wrought by his son, George, since he moved to the Priory.

George and his wife, Katharine, arrived in January 2006 and he has since overseen a dramatic renovation project of the Priory and Courtyard. They now run the Priory partly as their home and partly as a hospitality business, hosting weddings and celebrations, events and meetings.

George started work as assistant manager of the Dominion Theatre in London’s West End. He moved to the 4,500-seat Hammersmith Apollo and then became general manager of the Southampton Guildhall before heading back north to the family home.

“Hosting rock, pop and comedy shows to 20,000 people a week teaches you how to manage an old building, co-ordinate staff and run events. Most days it was like the Wild West,” he says.

While George shows future brides and bridegrooms – and their parents – the delights of the historic house and its modern, purpose-built reception facilities, Sir Andrew is happy now living in a converted barn a couple of hundred yards from the Priory.

There, he and his wife can look out over a small lake which attracts a wide variety of wildlife.

“We are in the higher level of stewardship scheme,” he says. “We are encouraging woodland and farmland birds. In fact, the woods where the snowdrops grow are run as a habitat for birds. In May, I get up early and come down to these woods to listen to the dawn chorus. It’s magnificent.”

But before May comes February, and Nature’s way of thumbing her nose at winter – the flowers will not disappoint; they can’t. Make a note in your diary, take your wellies and wrap up warm, because this snowdrop spectacular at Hodsock Priory could be the best one ever.

Hodsock Priory’s 2012 snowdrop spectacular runs from February 4 to March 4. Adults £5, children £1, under-fives free. Hodsock Priory, Hodsock, Worksop, Nottinghamshire S81 0TY. www.hodsockpriory.com; 01909 591274.