The craze for snowdrops continues, with more and more gardens opening in February to show off their collections. I like snowdrops en masse and some of the best are in old gardens where the flowers have been left to their own devices to spread, often in areas some little way from the house. That's how it is at Chippenham Park in Cambridgeshire, which I visited for the first time this month.
It's a treat, arriving in Chippenham. The gates to the park lie at the bottom of the one main street, with the road there making a very sharp left-hander to run along the outside of the park wall. It must have been laid out as a model village, perhaps some time after Chippenham Park got a new owner, John Tharp, in 1791. The cottages set back from the street on the right have a kind of 'model' look about them, laid out in pairs, colour-washed now in pink and cream, each cottage given a long plain front garden running either side of a central path, wonkily hedged in low evergreens. Central brick chimneys. Dormers in the roof. Squarish windows with small square panes, shutters either side. Not mucked about. A treat to look at.
So were the snowdrops, though it was a while before I got to them. The thing was, when I stepped out of the car, I smelt woodsmoke and followed it round the front of the house to the present kitchen garden, where a huge fire basket was burning logs at a wonderfully profligate rate. On a chill February day, it was the best welcome in the world. Just beyond was a caff, made in an old brick outbuilding. There were wood fires either end of that, too. So I stayed in there for quite a time, listening to the wind against the windows, eating coffee sponge and not looking at snowdrops.
But the sun came out and so did I, to wonder at the little house built into the corner of the kitchen garden, with bricks laid vertically rather than horizontally. Never seen that before. Then to admire the great spreads of aconites in the grass just outside the kitchen-garden wall.
The path leads down to the edge of a long piece of water, and here, among the clumps of snowdrops planted in fine mixed borders either side of the path, you can start the 'trainspotting' that snowdrop fanciers so love. It's naked one-upmanship. Do you know your 'Galatea' from your 'Hippolyta'? Can you nod to 'Lady Elphinstone' when you see her? Is that really 'Primrose Warburg' or am I mistaking it for 'Spindlestone Surprise'? And is there, actually, any difference between them?
The path, wandering between hellebores and snowdrops, brings you eventually to the head of the lake where a small summer house juts out over the water. You can sit inside on pleasantly beaten-up Lloyd Loom chairs and gaze over the long water, almost all the way down to its end, three-quarters of a mile away. It's one of the things I liked about this garden. It wasn't grudging towards its visitors. I hadn't expected the door of that little place to open up when I tried the handle. And I wasn't constantly assaulted by 'interpretation'. How I loathe interpretation. If a place catches your fancy when you've been there, you can find out all you want to know about it afterwards. Then it will mean something. But to be bombarded by boards and signs and roped-off areas kills the atmosphere of a place. Chippenham Park has a very strong spirit. That's getting a rarer and rarer thing to find in a garden.
So, it wasn't until later that I learnt that the ambitious sheet of water was laid out by William Eames, a landscaper who, in the roll call of English designers, sits after Capability Brown, but before Humphry Repton. He must have been called in by Tharp, who seems to have spent a vast amount of money here, remodelling house and grounds.
As you head round the top of the lake you start to pick up the remains of the garden that existed here before Tharp arrived – a formal kind of Anglo-Dutch water garden, with straight canals, overgrown but intriguing. Some huge old trees grow here, too, and under them, the first liberal spreads of snowdrops which is what I'd really come to see. They are magnificent. And so are the big, baggy old box trees. Are they, too, part of the Anglo-Dutch design, topiaries grown out? Or were they planted, as they often were, as the understorey of 18th-century shrubbery? Probably the latter, as you get a similar effect at Belton in Lincolnshire, where Eames also worked. My Encyclopaedia of Gardening, edited by JC Loudon in 1829, says that more than a million trees were planted in the 'improvements' at Chippenham Park. Eustace Crawley and his late wife, Anne, who came here in 1985, have been adding hundreds more.
Turning back up to the head of the lake, you come across one of the old canals, running parallel to the massive wall of the original kitchen garden, all five acres of it. This part of the garden works very well, with a wide mixed border (ancient cotinus, massive tree paeonies) running 250m along the wall, facing the old canal. Between is a line of tall, thin Italianate cypresses and leaning out over the canal, a most beautiful old hornbeam, its twigs tipped with bronze points that haven't yet become catkins. Ranged along the canal is a line of stone pine-cones, set in urns, mossy-topped and comfortable.
In the centre of the south-facing wall of the original kitchen garden is the head gardener's palace, now a private house. The lime wash on the walls either side suggest that once this entire wall was covered with glasshouses. They, too, rarely survive. Too expensive to repair. And heat. But the water, the trees, the snowdrops. Terrific.
Chippenham Park, Chippenham, Ely, Cambs CB7 5PT is open today and tomorrow, also 23-24 Feb (11am-4pm), admission £5 (01638 720221, chippenhamparkgardens.co.uk).