Amid great drifts of white flowers, Anna Pavord thinks she may have discovered snowdrop heaven
SNOWDROP COLLECTORS have become among the most competitive of all gardeners and snowdrop lunches are a new fixture on the February calendar. But at this time of the year, I don't fancy getting down on my hands and knees, counting green spots. It's too cold. And for me, snowdrops are flowers to be seen in great sweeps and drifts, not standing solitary by a label in a pot.

Still, I was infected enough by snowdrop fever to send away to John Sales a very distinct type that has naturalised along the bottom boundary of our garden, pushing broad, bright-green leaves in thick clumps through the ivy and nettles. John Sales, once a brilliant head of gardens at the National Trust, now retired, understands more about plants and gardens than anyone else I know, and snowdrops are one of his specialities. Our snowdrop, he said, was Galanthus woronowii, a wild species that grows in the Caucasus and Georgia.

How on earth did it get itself naturalised in our valley then, I wondered? "Crimean War," suggested Mr Sales. Many different kinds of snowdrops grow naturally in that region and some came back with the soldiers who fought there. If you live in a house built before 1853, that may be the explanation. Nobody can ever know for sure.

The snowdrop we most commonly see is Galanthus nivalis, which has much greyer, thinner leaves than the Russian one we found here. But even G. nivalis, which spreads now in great sheets through English woods and hedge banks, isn't a true native. Like other snowdrops, its proper home is further east, but it's an easy- going thing and naturalised over here quite quickly.

Hodsock Priory, just off the A1 near Blyth, Nottinghamshire, was one of the first places to specialise in snowdrop openings. The garden is spectacular at this time of the year, with great swathes of hellebores and brilliant Cyclamen coum carpeting banks among the snowdrops and early- flowering shrubs. Moving blindfold through the garden, you'd still be able to picture it in your mind just by the smells: evergreen sarcococca used as a dwarf hedge either side of a path, great banks of Lonicera x purpusii dripping over the handrails of the steps, the strange spidery yellow flowers of wintersweet breaking from bare branches on a bank.

The entrance takes you through a magnificent brick gatehouse from the 15th century, with the house, twice done over in the 19th century, lying to the left. A formal terrace running along the front of the house is bounded by a brick balustrade, marking the drop in level to the lawn below. Beyond is a big pond, the far bank planted with a magnificent group of Japanese maples. The bark is a strange pinky buff colour which sings out superbly in the winter landscape. When I finally got round there, I learned its name - Acer x conspicuum `Phoenix'.

My first object was Hodsock's woodland walk, newly laid out in the 13 acres of Horse Pasture Wood, a narrow tongue of trees that stretches away from the garden back towards the road. Hanging in the woods was a gorgeous smell of woodsmoke, one of the best smells in the world (almost as good as the winter honeysuckle). Halfway round the circuit, the path brings you into an open glade and there was the bonfire, specially lit to keep visitors warm on winter visits. It is a brilliant touch.

The longer of the two circuits takes you to the end of the wood and brings you to a dell where thousands of snowdrops - mostly doubles - push up through the dark leaf litter. The Buchanans (owners of Hodsock) planted a quarter of a million snowdrops to celebrate the millennium and they are settled enough now to make a superb display.

The woodland walk eventually brings you back towards the garden through a thicket of old rhododendrons. Gradually the ditch widens out into a more formal, stone-edged strip of water that ends in a series of linked ponds. The bank on the left of the narrow water canal is thick with hellebores, growing under the spreading branches of Cornus mas. In Hodsock's five- acre garden, there is plenty of room to plant swathes of one kind of plant, but it's a trick that can enhance smaller gardens too.

Our desire just to possess a certain thing, or to collect different members of a family we like - geraniums, roses, clematis - can make our gardens into restless places. Here, you have the chance to appreciate each sweep of plants, whether it's of cyclamen, aconites, the marbled leaves of arum, hellebores or snowdrops. The series of narrow, stone-retained terraces that drop down from the side of the house (by the tented tea room) to the garden below are very simply planted: great tumbling curtains of aubrieta, lines of lavender, strips of winter aconites. But they accentuate the lines of the terraces, underline the design. Looking towards this part of the garden from a distance, you realise that mixed plantings here would not be nearly as successful.

Hodsock has made a great success of its snowdrop openings, but there's much else to admire here too: the weird pale-green bouquets of butterbur (Petasites japonicus) growing by the pond, the insubstantial veil of pale blossom on the winter-flowering cherries, the variegated myrtle and dark dwarf iris growing in pots by the house. E

The garden at Hodsock Priory is open every day, 10am-4pm, until Sunday 6 March, admission pounds 4, 01909 591204, www.snowdrops.co.uk

MORE SNOWDROP GARDENS TO VISIT

Anglesey Abbey Gardens, Lode, Cambridge, Wed-Sun until 20 Feb, 10.30am- 4pm, 01223 810080

Attingham Park, Attingham, Shrewsbury, 12 and 13 Feb, 11am-5pm, 01743 708162

Benington Lordship, Benington, Stevenage, daily until 20 Feb, 12noon- 4pm, 01438 869668

Cambo Gardens, Kingsbarns, St Andrews, Fife, daily, 10am-dusk, 01333 450313

Colzium, Lennox Estate, Kilsyth, Glasgow, weekends, 12noon-4pm, 01236 828150

Easton Walled Gardens, Easton, Grantham, daily to 20 Feb, 11am-3pm, 01476 530063

Fairhaven Woodland and Water Garden, School Rd, South Walsham, Norwich, daily, 10am-5pm, 01603 270449

Heale Gardens, Middle Woodford, Salisbury, Tue-Sun, 10am-5pm, 01722 782504

Painswick Rococo Garden, Painswick, Gloucs, daily, 11am-5pm, 01452 813204

Penrhyn Castle, Bangor, Gwynedd, 12 and 13 Feb, 12noon-4pm, 01248 353084

Admission prices vary

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