Wednesday, 29 March 2023

TOR - That was a long way up

It was Mrs Wessex-Reiver's birthday on Monday. Fear of reprisals prevents my mentioning a lady's age, save to say it was not a special one - but a special day unfolded. For a change I'm going to do this as an image and caption blog, just to increase the spice of my mid-life. The request was for a spiritually uplifting birthday, and, given the weather was perfect, where better than Glastonbury, Somerset.

First stop the Abbey Tea Rooms run by a sister of an ex work colleague of mine. We like it here, more Miss Marple tearoom than uber cool all chrome and light wood coffee experience. Sadly arriving at 11.31 hrs we were too late for the all day breakfast - a most acceptable cheese toastie each filled the void. I know how to go wild on a birthday.  Consumed, there followed a ten minute walk to the Chalice Well nestling beneath the Tor.

The Chalice Well is one of the many 'Holy Wells' dotted around the country. The actual date of this Well is not certain, but it is thought to be at least the 12th Century, though some accounts place Joseph of Arimathea here not long after Jesus's death, where legend has it on the Tor itself Joseph struck a hawthorn staff into the soil which grew as the famous Glastonbury Thorn which flowers twice a year, Christmas and Easter. Since the 18th Century there had been a bathing pool where pilgrims can wash and bathe to gain health and meditative vigour from the flowing waters.  Today was no exception, though I am told it was chilly.

Sometimes called the 'Blood Well’ due to the iron rich water staining the rocks, the well constantly flows at a rate of  25,000 gallons per day and at a constant year round temperature of  11 degrees centigrade. Once the Well formed at the foot-slopes of Glastonbury Tor. Today, while of course it hasn't moved physically, the Well is surrounded by a calming sanctuary garden, which in late March was perfect due to the amazing display of spring bulbs. 

A nice ammonite feature on the path.

Since my last visit over ten years ago the meadow area, newly created then, has become a sunny area to sit and relax and listen to the birdsong.

While taking in the views of St Michaels Tower higher up the hill - more of that later.

The Well itself is now capped by an ornate cover, which I remember being newly installed on my last visit.

Two more views of the garden, it really was a lovely day. Chiffchaffs were calling, a raven flew in circles overhead, various other birds called, it felt like spring had finally arrived.  

I even saw my first butterfly of the year, sadly unidentified as it flew behind the above hedge as soon as I'd noticed it. The Well water eventually enters a pool on the lower slopes before disappearing out of sight and eventually onto the Somerset Levels.

This crab apple was just perfect - in a few days it's blossom will dazzle and delight

Up the Tor then - the beginning of the path of which begins next to the Chalice Well. The entire Tor site has been owned and managed by the National Trust since 1933, and on our visit two Rangers were cleaning the signs and generally giving it a thorough spring clean. As they had the Land Rover with them I asked them that if I offered 50p would they drive me to the top. They declined, and as I had no more change to further bribe them, there was nothing for it other than to begin climbing the 301 steps. One, two....

There are some newly planted crab apple trees in the first field, a perfect circle. I asked why they're here and I was told it was simply a circular feature that it is hoped will bring joy to the visitors as the aim is for the trees to all flower at the same time. It'll be good to see these when mature.

Half way and the Tower is coming into view.

Looking back on Glastonbury itself, and the crab apple circle mid ground.

Handily there's a bench half way up - time to stand, or sit, and stare

Nearly there. Surprisingly the Tower only seems to be the same height as Mrs Wessex-Reiver. It looks much taller on the television. 

Oh yes, a trick of the camera then, it's quite tall, though how tall I'm not sure. I've tried to find this out after our visit but I can only discover the tower, once part of a church before it was demolished during the Dissolution of the Monasteries period, stands on the top of the Tor, itself 518 feet above sea level.

Selfies, well you have to don't you....

View towards the south-south-west out of the door opening

And the view looking east from the other direction. We believe the ley line which straddles the Tor passes through the Tower, through these doors. I need to do more reading around this.

I can imagine this area will be packed in summer, thankfully on the day we visited only a dozen or so people had made it to the top. It was a perfect day to be up there, we could see for miles in every direction. I chatted to a couple of people on the top. One couple wanted to know where Admiral Hood's Monument was. I showed them a tiny column on the horizon to the south on the hill above Compton Dundon. Another couple visiting from Norfolk wanted to know where the Glastonbury Festival took place. I pointed to an area of green fields to the south east - "sort of over there", I said. I should be a tour guide.

All too soon it was time to descend the Tor, on what was my first even climb up there. I've lived nearby for thirty years and in those thirty years had never made it up the Tor. It's an old adage if one lives near to a feature or landmark, one always plans to go there - tomorrow. Well today I did it and surprised myself by romping up like a mountain goat. The steps helped but I enjoyed that walk without getting too breathless at all.  

Back in the town we returned to the Abbey Tea Rooms, where I was forced to consume a chocolate sundae to celebrate Mrs W-R's birthday. She had a cup of tea and a Fentiman's


Chalice Well https://www.chalicewell.org.uk/

Admiral Hood Monument  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Admiral_Hood_Monument

St Michael's Tower  https://www.nationalchurchestrust.org/church/st-michaels-tower-glastonbury

Saturday, 25 March 2023

The Jackdaws of Front Street

I sometimes wonder what the view was like in 1831 when my father's house was built. Here in 2023 the view is of two Edwardian houses hosting, as it happens every morning,  squabbling jackdaws on a rooftop.

I am of an age when funerals are more regular than I'd ideally prefer, this time the mother of my best friend in the North East. An excuse then this week to spend a couple of days up north to catch up with my ninety two year old father while also paying my respects. 

Back-a-long when his house was built in East Boldon, then County Durham, the view out the front would have been over fields, and a blacksmiths. Most of the fields are remarkably still there, sadly now hidden by two Edwardian terraces. His house is built on what the deeds describe as a ropery, or rope-age plot. Next door is the Black Bull pub, a former coaching inn which was built around 1750. This was a stopping off inn for the stage coaches between Sunderland (5 miles) and Newcastle (9 miles), and, until recently, the original mortuary existed at the rear. Travel in those days was slightly different to today, one could not guarantee to reach the destination in bad weather. 

The coming of the railway lines began to change the world and stage traffic began to decline. Presumably trade was falling off and the field adjacent to the inn where the replacement stage horses were kept, was sold off and the area to build what is now my fathers house 'roped off' for sale. Or at least that's how I understand it after a little research. And so this late Georgian house came into being and was called Linden House when new. Today it simply has a number and is part of a terrace of individual houses along the main road.

The Sunderland to Newcastle railway line opened in 1839, part of the Brandling Line which itself is one of the oldest in the World, having first run mining wagons as part of the Tanfield Waggonway which began in 1725. East Boldon did not really exist before the trains. It was simply a collection of farms and rural buildings clustered around the inn and along the main Toll Road, the Toll Cottage still exists a couple of miles away. However once the railway station opened in 1839 East Boldon developed rapidly from the station as a centre of travel, for about a mile along a new road up to the Toll Road. As the centre point of the village changed, the area where my father's house now sits became somewhat of a periphery part of the newer village, separated by fields from the much older West Boldon village a country mile away. Where I myself grew up.

None of this history refers to the sound of jackdaws squabbling every morning on the house opposite. Yet I am convinced the DNA of jackdaws at the time of stage travel continues to flow through their veins.  

As long as I can remember this house opposite my father's has had jackdaws on the roof. It is only these two buildings they seem to communally alight on. There are a lot of jackdaw and rook still in the village despite the main road, once the preserve of horses and human footfall, being now a thundering arterial gash of commuters and lorries which never sleeps as they head to the A19 or Newcastle. Yet every morning for decades when I've stayed at my father's house at dawn there is a calamitous clattering and yakkering of jackdaws on this roof. In the evening these birds fly over to West Boldon where there is a large roost site. But here on a man made roof they loaf and fidget. Why they do this I have no idea. Heat maybe from the house below? Moss on the tiles to flick through? Or simply they've always come here. As the crow flies foraging fields are less than a minute away, fields which now are no longer full of cattle but leisure-time horse livery, plenty of easy pickings in that environment for a hungry corvid.

But I love the jackdaws just being my alarm call as yet another Amazon van, or a police car with sirens blaring thunders by ahead of the double decker busses sardine like with children off to school. The days when East Boldon was a simple farming community are long gone, but it is wonderful to think a little of the old days remain, in the descendants of those jackdaws here in 1831, who still come to this rooftop every morning the loaf and fidget. Long may that continue in this little corner of the mighty and ever expanding Tyneside Conurbation.

Tuesday, 14 March 2023

The Rookeries of St Lawrence

Back at the end of January I wrote of the rook community at Wick St Lawrence, my local area. Back then the rooks were loafing about but aside from a couple of old nests which were being utilised, the bulk of the rookery activity had not begun.  Last evening though, as sunsets are definitely occurring later, I stopped on my way home to check what is going on.

Plus, as I realised later, the blurred images due to the low light bring (in my view) an enhanced atmosphere to the images I took. 

It was close to 6.30pm by the time I'd arrived home after my commute. The light remained but wasn't that great. However it was a preferred time for counting nests and birds as they were coming in to settle for the evening, allowing for a more accurate count of the population.  At this time of the year we are at the cusp of massed winter roosts ending and socially cohesive communal rookeries developing. An interesting book from the 1930s by G. K. Yeates [2] first looked into this in depth, though some of his observations were discussed and revised soon after publication by one J. P. Burkitt in his short article on young rook at a rookery [1]. Yet it was Yeates who mentioned that mid March is a cusp time between winter roosts ending and the rookery roosts forming, which he estimated to be about a week before the first eggs lain. Certainly down here I'd suggest this happens two or 3 weeks earlier - late February?

All the nests are around the boundary of a large grass field. The first image above of three nests was especially welcome as this area had been heavily modified over the winter months. Luckily a couple of standing trees were left and three nests were in use. To my right, the trees by the field edge had six nests, though the exact number is hard to observe in that image. A quick count then, nine nests so far, meaning a minimum of 18 birds, assuming 2 birds to a nest. I didn't count the hangers on, more specifically, non-breeding, young, unpaired singletons or late nesting rook

Turning then to the main rookery area of trees hard by the road entering the village itself, a total of 12 nests were visible in the one tree. Remarkable that only two weeks ago not a single nest was here. Therefore a rough estimate, 24 rooks here plus the 18 from the other trees, 42 birds minimum. However there were a lot more birds loafing about in these trees and in other parts of the village. As I walked closer they fidgeted and squabbled, the noise was quite deafening. Below the trees on the lane was a matrix of sticks dropped, or fallen from the nursery structures above. I tried to count the birds as I walked and, while nearly impossible there were certainly more than 24 in this one spot. 

Then as I walked under the nests the formerly agitated and fidgety birds who'd been watching me approach now arose from the branches en-masse in an almighty crescendo of noise the moment I stopped walking. That is quite usual for corvids, and other wildlife. They observe an approach and as long as there's nothing to worry about they'll hold their station but chatter away. However once movement stops immediately there's an eruption of birds calling loudly, both harsh caws of alarm and communication and the softer whistling contact calls rook make.  Many of the birds wheeled just above the branches and then very soon began to return onto their nests, though a good number left the area completely, floating away like wood smoke in the blustery wind. I quickly withdrew and retraced my steps a little thus allowing the nesting birds to regain their former position as soon as possible.

That lift-off allowed me a rough calculation of individuals in this one assemblage and I would estimate around 40, so heading towards double the nesting pairs of 24. And in doing that rough calculation, shall we say an additional 40% non breeding birds in the community, then adding those here and the others in the trees I'd suggest somewhere over 60 birds in this small rookery encircling this large grass field. Not far away, less than a mile across the fields, is another rookery at Hewish of a similar size. Whether there is cross communication between these two rookeries I don't know but it wouldn't surprise me with these sociable crows.

Walking back to the car I noticed that twenty nine rook (counted from the image) were making use of the power lines crossing the field that the rook nests border. Most of these individuals were those who had flown off from the main rookery area, but not all, and probably these were a mixture of non-breeding individuals and maybe males waiting to return to the rookery. Moments after the image was taken they erupted again en-masse and headed back to their respective sub-groups in the trees, leaving me to take all I'd seen in and assess this wonderful end to the daily commute from work, counting rooks.


BURKITT, J. P - British Birds April 1935. Volume 28 Issue 11. NOTES ON THE ROOK:
With special reference to the proportion of young in flocks, and the change over from winter roosts to the rookery.

YEATES, G.K. The Life of the Rook. Philip Allan 1934

Wednesday, 1 March 2023

Before Dawn On the First Day Of Spring

They flew out of the darkness, resembling ghostly wraiths high above my head. In that strange half light it was difficult to remain unmoved as seven great white egrets gently drifted away from their night-time roost and headed off to begin the day a new.

It was with a level of madness not seen in me for a while but having woken at just after 4am, with a half- baked notion to go and see the starlings lift off from their night-roost, I tumbled out of bed and made a cup of tea. A drive down the M5 then a pootle across the Somerset Levels and by 05:45 I had arrived at Shapwick NNR, part of the mighty Avalon Marshes complex. My aim, if it could be thought of as an aim, was both to see starlings erupt en-masse from their night roost, and to hear bitterns booming, which they're now doing with daily regularity at dawn.

The creation of this pre-sunrise endeavour actually began the afternoon before. I had a notion to write a blog post based on watching starlings come into roost in the evening, on the final day of Winter, return  in the morning and revel in their morning flight on the first day of Spring. That was the plan in my head. In reality it was somewhat different. Although I'd seen thousands of starlings foraging the previous afternoon from the car window, I didn't manage to work out exactly where they roosted. Coupled with a biting wind scudding across the flat landscape of the Somerset Levels I lost the will to hang about at dusk. Standing on the bridge over the picturesquely named South Drain, the lack of starlings overhead did not dampen my spirits. I knew the massed starling flocks had moved from the RSPB's Ham Wall to Shapwick NNR in recent weeks, and knowing Shapwick intimately, I decided to just to turn up in the morning and there they'd be noisily awaiting my arrival. What could possibly go wrong.

Well almost everything!

Starling  behave differently in cloudy weather than with clear skies. Today heavy cloud made the hour or so before sunrise very dark. It really was very dark but once my eyes had adjusted there was just about enough light to see without the need for a torch. I began to walk along the track, once the bed for the Somerset and Dorset Joint Railway, and even in the near pitch darkness this arrow-straight track would not be that difficult to follow. I'd brought a hand-held sound recorder with me too, as I hypothesised this would be a recce for the parabolic kit if the bitterns boomed well. They may have been booming, however in the middle distance the chug chug chug chug of diesel pump amply reminded me that the Somerset Levels today is entirely man-made and managed. That said, above the steadily rising amplification of the chug chug chug chug a tawny owl hooted the end of the nightshift on the reserve. It was about 6am now and the merest slit of pre-dawn was visible. And below that a tiny pinprick of light. I'd hoped I'd have the reserve all to myself, but no. As I walked that tiny pin-prick of light grew closer, and bobbled about a bit not unlike a firefly, until in the darkness a lady jogger sped past with a jolly "Morning". I thought I had a slight madness about me coming birdwatching at night, but to go jogging before dawn?

It was only after the lady jogger had passed and my eyes re-adjusted again I saw another light in the distance. It's like Grand Central Station on the reserve, maybe that chug chug chug chug is the ghost of the steam engines which plied peat away from this landscape. I drew closer, this light was a fishermen combination who had with them what can only be described as a sports-stadium grade light dangling between them. Momentarily blinded as we passed, I have no idea how many there were of them but being English I bade them Good Morning. I received one in reply. I had filled in twenty minutes so far and my tally was, diesel water pump, a jogger, some fishermen and a tawny owl at some distance. It was going well then! But at least the light was gathering.

Suddenly I realised I was on my own. The din from the diesel water pump was receding and to my left a song thrush was giving it large somewhere in the woods. The water rail then started, followed by Cetti's warbler. All unseen of course but the reserve was throwing the duvet off the reedbed and waking up. Whistling from wigeon to my right caught my ear, followed closely by an eruption of jackdaw from a reedbed. In the race to take a picture in the half light I forgot to remember how dark it was. My camera did its best with me trying to follow the flock as it flew away, today though was to develop into a series of less than perfect images, which in some way I quite like as they tell of the moment. 

Back to the jackdaws. Had they roosted in the reedbed they erupted from, or were they mid-flight and simply flopped down for while? I didn't count them at the time but from the image there are about 100 individuals. Something niggled at me, although it looks lighter in the image below it really was dark and I can't envisage which woodland they'd have come from well before sunrise and why they would then settle in reeds, even temporarily. Most intriguing, had my eyes deceived me? I've not come across jackdaw roosting anywhere other than in trees or woodland before, and a quick look online didn't disprove this fact. But then I question why not. Reedbeds are a potentially safe environment, it is why starling roost here (though a good number get eaten by bittern, foxes and otters during the night). Are jackdaws, a very adaptable crow, adapting too?

Not long after the jackdaws passed by then a gaggle of Canada geese also provided an opportunity for a  less-than-perfect image. Still no starlings, but at least three bitterns were booming at some distance, which is an amazing thought for this bird that has come back from the brink. When numbers of bittern were at their lowest ebb, for years I tried and failed to hear a bittern in East Anglia. They became my bogie bird. I even spent an entire holiday in the early 1990's at the Cley Marshes in Norfolk failing to hear a bittern despite the warden telling me they were being heard daily and recommending what time to visit to guarantee (to not hear one). Nowadays on the Somerset Levels it is almost impossible not to hear a bittern in the springtime, a remarkable turnabout of fortunes. But still no starlings.

Watching starling leave the roost site should be easy. They remain where they arrived the evening before and before leaving in the morning the noise becomes astonishing as they fidget and jostle with neighbours awaiting that invisible command to go... which once issued means the entire flock rises as one. That said, this morning despite regular listening at reedbeds I heard absolutely nothing.  What was fantastic were the egrets flying from their roost. Both little and great white flew overhead  resembling ghostly wraiths inspecting the wetland underworld. Quite unearthly seeing these huge members of the heron family slowly flap and glide above me, their ghostly white plumage under-lit and in contrast with the dark sky. I still get a thrill seeing these egrets, as a boy they were rarer than hens teeth (or starlings).

By now it was heading towards sunrise and I'd been wandering about for over an hour. I'd obviously missed the starlings or they'd gone another way. Maybe then if I headed to Noah's Hide I might see something else and not be too disappointed. A call of nature first, I am of that age. Whilst carrying out my needs I heard a roaring sound behind me, like a wave crashing on a pebbly beach but in a continuous way. I looked up and there they were, thousands upon thousands of starling flying low and fast above the trees under which I stood. Wave after wave passed by making the already grey sky darken considerably. And that noise, it is astonishing. Quickly grabbing my camera I failed to record anything other than a number of abysmal record images. It was par for the course today, I'd come into woodland just as they'd passed overhead, restricting my view entirely. Given the direction they were coming from I must have passed their roost site half an hour earlier, presumably when they were still reasonably quiet, or masked by the chug chug chug chug. But good view or bad, it was all very exciting and I looked at my phone, 06.49hrs. Now I know.

I have to say my images of the passing starlings are worthy of an award. I'm not sure what that award will be but I'll accept the award now and have my speech already prepared. The last of the starling flock passed over about 3 minutes after it began. There were a couple of short breaks but otherwise three minutes of starling flying overhead at speed. Numbers must have been close 100,000 if not more. Remarkable as we're now at the very end of the winter roosting season, which was one of the reasons I found myself here today in an attempt to grab a last look before they disperse to their breeding areas.

My quest was won. I'd heard bitterns, and although I'd not seen them lift out the reeds as one organic flock, I'd seen massed flocks of starlings. I sat in Noah's Hide reflecting on my morning with a cup of flask tea, it then struck me it was only ten past seven. I'd seen so much and experienced so much in only an hour and a half (and before many people were out and about) from arriving in pitch black night-time to now a half light just after daybreak. And it wasn't over yet. As I sat in the hide a great spotted woodpecker was drumming madly close by. Behind me the woodland birds were in audible competition with their wetland cousins. I switched on the recorder and if you wish to hear a 7 minute roughly edited recording, here it is from my SoundCloud site -  CLICK HERE

What a wonderful start to spring, bitterns booming, woodpecker drumming, and a cacophony of avian sound surrounding me. I'd finished my flask and thought it's time to head home, but before that a quick look out of the hide close by, the 70 Acre Hide. 

Normally there's very little to see from here as it looks out over a vast reedbed. Not today though. I'd just packed my camera away into my rucksack when a bittern flew over the reeds to my left. I had a good view with the binoculars, however as I'd come to expect today, no camera meant no image. It was a spectacular view too for a good 10 seconds or so. Note to self, "leave camera primed just in case".

The walk back to the car was just as eventful. The woodland over the opposite side of the South Drain was alive with birdsong, so much song it was virtually impossible to differentiate each species. On the ground a number of finches were feeding and a jay spent time out in the open flicking through a recently dug area. A large flock of redwing then caught my eye, surely they'll not be here much longer. I heard an unfamiliar call like chattering schoolchildren wearing wooden clogs, one redwing was singing which while not unknown isn't that common in the UK, but then I realised that soundscape of chattering was other redwing. Spring is here, serenaded by a winter thrush, and having been on the go for the best part of three hours, it was only 8.20am.

Sunday, 12 February 2023

East Lambrook Manor Garden : Snowdrops

In a book published in 2014, The Galanthophiles: 160 Years of Snowdrop Devotees by Jane Kilpatrick and Jennifer Harmer, they describe snowdrops coming of age "between 1854 and 2014". The book  "explores not only the discovery of new variants and species during that time but also the stories of the ardent enthusiasts who sought out, cherished, and shared these deceptively fragile white flowers." And I think that's it, that is why I love snowdrops, those deceptively fragile white flowers that contain a botanical anti-freeze allowing them to emerge in the coldest of winter months and bring promise to the late winter landscape.

I cannot recall the first time I visited East Lambrook Manor near South Petherton in Somerset and while not an annual visitor I have been here a number of times, to look at snowdrops in particular. This Grade 1 listed garden, while important in its own right as the foundation of the cottage style garden, is a mecca for the Galanthophile.  I do not class myself as one, I simply like snowdrops. 

Much has been written of the origin and history of snowdrops in Britain, therefore I'll only briefly mention some of that here as there is no definitive answer to that question, and I like that vagueness. 

The accepted wisdom is that the species referred to as the native snowdrop Galanthus nivalis is not native to Britain at all.  That is probably true, however the origins of this snow piercer in the British Isles is a little murky, with its first recorded mention in literature being within General Historie of Plantes by John Gerard printed in 1597. However these were snowdrops already growing in gardens and monasteries, and they were not called snowdrops by Gerard but described as Leucojum bulbosum praecox minus –  or as he called them ‘Timely flouring bulbous Violet’. 

Some references head further back into history, citing that with the retreat of the last Ice Age, snowdrops may have colonised Britain naturally from their core regions today of the Caucasus and Western Asia, with records being lost in the historic pollen samples. This may possibly be true, though it could be argued why did they not survive this colonisation in temperate Britain? But it is highly probable that the Romans at least knew of snowdrops and may have brought them to Britain as their Empire expanded. It is natural for people when living away from home to have a little reminder of their native area. All the more intriguing given that Galanthus the general name for snowdrops is derived from two Greek words meaning ‘milk’ and ‘flower’ referring to the white petals and Nivalis from the Latin word for ‘snow’.

The ability of snowdrops to push through snow is also suggested for the explosion of snowdrop records in Britain in the mid Victorian era when it is thought soldiers returning from the Crimea War brought with them snowdrop bulbs found naturally in the region, as a reminder of the first sights of spring during a bitter war.  

Or maybe it was the Vikings, who we now know traded extensively with southern Europe and the middle east. Or the Normans as they arrived on Britain's shores. It is intriguing and what garners my thoughts is we now know a lot more about early history, how populations traded and moved about a lot more than previously thought.

It is well documented that religious sites were possibly a nucleus of snowdrops in Britain during the Medieval period, especially out to the west in Wales and Ireland. Those monasteries, abbeys being the centre of not only learning but mediaeval medicine, were associated with the local, shall we call them native, physicians. Monks and religious followers travelled widely across Europe and Asia bringing with them knowledge of botanical medicine, with a chemical (an alkaloid galantamine) derived from the bulb of snowdrop being first mentioned by ancient Greeks for its mind-altering properties and used for centuries in the treatment of headaches, nervous tension and to ease migraines. Is it then a simple leap of faith to suggest snowdrops have a longer history in Britain than wisdom decrees, through ancient medicine and monastic herbal gardens.

My historical context with East Lambrook Manor is not as long and as I have mentioned I don't have any documentation to confirm when I first visited.  History is a funny thing. This is not a garden to come and walk amongst the drifts of snowdrops through woodland. It is a modest garden which displays over 100 cultivars of the twenty or so species of snowdrop known. There may be 21 species now, I'm sure I read somewhere on my visit a new species has been discovered. Margery Fish (1892 –1969) who bought this manor and garden to get away from the London Blitz admitted herself she was not a gardener when she arrived. Yet in a few decades she became a leading authority on the informal cottage style garden planting which broke the mould of the more rigid and formal Victorian and Edwardian bedding. 

She also liked snowdrops, though her first interest was the Hellebore genus. Eventually though she became an avid galanthophile which was explored in her book A Flower for Every Day, which includes an account of the giant snowdrop variety "S. Arnott", first exhibited at a Royal Horticultural Society exhibition in 1951.  Probably the most common species of snowdrop is the native snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis, the giant snowdrop Galanthus elwesii and the  pleated snowdrop Galanthus plicatus which sits in the middle, size wise. From these three species hundreds of cultivars and sub species have emerged either naturally or through breeding, with it being estimated there are over 1000 cultivars of all snowdrops.

The more I looked at the very well arranged and labelled cultivars in the garden the less I realised I knew. From a distance they are low growing white flowers, but close up, snowdrops are unique, sometimes subtly sometimes not. Petal markings, leaf shape, growth habit are all different. I found myself eavesdropping the gardener at East Lambrook chatting to a serious Galanthophile, with them discussing that this variety is like that variety but you can tell them apart by the length of the green edge on a single petal, but only when the flowers are mature. I'm not sure I'm ready for that level of interest or knowledge.

As a simple rule though, of the three species above the best way to tell them apart is to examine the leaf. G. elwesii has a rounded (‘supervolute’) leaf base, while G. plicatus leaves have a folded (‘plicate’) lip along the edge. The leaves of the much bigger overall G. elwesii are fleshier and wider. I bought a species snowdrop myself G. gracillis which is tiny and has a characteristic twisted leaf. I think I may be getting obsessed.

What I enjoy about this garden is that it is well laid out, every clump of snowdrop is labelled, so as we wandered about I could take notes or photographs. At the time of our visit the garden wasn't too busy, but it was obvious those who came came for a reason, to discover more of these delicate little flowers arranged in a showing border like fairy hats on green stalks.

This cultivar I especially liked as it really did feel like white fishing fly on a rod and line, sadly though they'd sold out. 

This was the most expensive variety on sale, though recently I read that at auction a single snowdrop bulb Galanthus plicatus 'Golden Tears', sold in February last year for a record-busting £1,850.

While it is not advisable to grow snowdrops in containers, this single specimen is breaking free and has emerged between the cracks in some steps. How it got here made me wonder.

I did like the way the gardeners here displayed cultivars in these terracotta pots. They were not here permanently, just for the snowdrop month of February, but it allowed a closer inspection than getting onto hands and knees in the garden. This one above G. gracillis is one that I bought - a species snowdrop, the one with the twisted leaves. It may have cost £12.50 for a pot, but there are a dozen or so bulbs developing that I can see.

This variety I also liked, though a lot more expensive to buy, therefore I resisted. The green shading to the petals is a strong feature on this and another cultivar I liked G. philippe andre meyer whose green markings were very much like an exclamation mark. I really am becoming an obsessive. The variety below G. elwesii 'Natalie Garton' was one which Julie my wife loved, so we managed to purchase a pot of these to bring home, with a third variety G. elwesii 'Marjorie Brown' completing our spending today. In fact we bought these as Valentine gifts between us, something to look forward to in the years to come.

We'd spent nearly two hours wandering about in this gem of a garden. It made me think though that even though snowdrops are seen as ubiquitous today it was not until 1753 that the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus reclassified the snowdrop using the Greek and Latin term we still use – Galanthus Nivalis and in doing so, split this from another favourite of mine which I've long grown in my own garden for later spring show, the snowflakes or Leucojum species. Then in 1805 snowdrops were moved into the Amaryllidaceae family where they remain to this day, though a lot of chopping and changing is going on botanically at the moment.

After all that excitement I took our purchases back to the car and then returned for a well earned cup of tea, next to some snowdrops of course.