We may be in the throes of winter but, for flower fans, there is a chance to sample a taste of spring - and you don't need to travel as far as the Netherlands to catch it. As a matter of fact, you need travel no further afield than the Lincolnshire Fens to find Britain's very own Spring Garden of Europe. This weekend, Spalding hosts the Springfields '99 flower show, where thousands of daffodils, hyacinths, tulips and numerous other flowering bulbs and scrubs will provide an extravaganza of colour under one roof.
Although Spalding and the surrounding area is known as "South Holland", the "Holland" part of the name does not allude to the tulips that were once abundant here but, rather, is a reference to the Anglo-Saxon word for high ground. Despite this confusion, Spalding itself has a very Dutch feel. The town lies astride the River Welland, which sweeps through the town in a deep tidal channel and gives this sleepy little place much of its character.
Armed with a copy of the Tourist Board's Spalding Town Walk Guide (20p), I set off to explore. From earliest times, the River Welland brought trade to the area; corn and potatoes flowing out, timber and coal flowing in. Snuggled within the precincts of the town, the banks of the river are lined with dignified Georgian houses, old warehouses and mills, and modern structures which are in keeping with the town's ambience and make a walk along the river's edge a pleasure. Numerous Victorian footbridges span the river along the way, making access to both sides easy.
As land was gradually reclaimed from the marshes in this area, thanks would often be given by building a church. These religious buildings would then become the focus of surrounding farms, often developing into the centrepiece of a growing town. This is obviously the case in Spalding and the parish church of St Mary and St Nicolas, medieval in origin but with a distinctly Norman feel to it. Sadly, modern progress has added to the town's architecture in the shape of a modern supermarket building at Spalding's heart.
One of the largest attractions in the area, however, is the bulb fields and people have been travelling to Spalding since before the Second World War on organised tours to revel in the beauty of Lincolnshire's bulb fields. Over the last hundred years, since flowers began to be grown commercially, Lincolnshire's bulb fields have grown substantially from a smallholding of 500 acres in 1900, selling exclusively to London's Covent Garden, to more than 10,000 acres producing 25,000 boxes of daffodils a day and selling throughout the world.
"Tulipmania" raged in the Netherlands from 1634 to 1637, when an Admiral van Enkhuijsen bulb, one of the rarest and most beautiful tulips, could fetch 5,400 guilders - about 15 years' wages for the average Dutch worker of the time - but tulips didn't arrive in Lincolnshire until 1907 when Frederick Culpin brought in 100 bulbs of six different varieties and established the British tulip fields. When tulips were at the peak of their popularity,there were about 3,000 acres growing but today the tulip fields have diminished to little more than 300 acres.
The first flower-hunting excursions here began as long ago as 1935, when the area had over 300 visitors arriving from London by train and bus to witness the coming of spring. By 1949, more than 100,000 people were coming in more than 100 coaches and 6-7,000 cars to explore the area. Special daily sightseeing routes were established to enable the visitors to see the best of the day's blooming flowers.
The bulb season in the Fens begins with the Springfields show and ends with the Spalding Flower Parade and Spring Festival in the first week of May. The Springfields flower show started up in 1966 with the purpose of the study and proper cultivation of flowers grown from bulbs and corms. For the last 23 years, there have also been displays, and the appeal of the Springfields displays stems undoubtedly from the chance they offer to flush away the winter blues with a passage into spring through the bulb fields of Lincolnshire.
Springfields '99, a 12,000sqft display of landscaped beds of tulips, daffodils, hyacinths, flowering scrubs and miscellaneous bulbs, takes place this weekend from 11am to 5pm. Admission costs pounds 2.50 for adults and is free for under-16s. There is wheelchair access and there will be restaurants and bars open all weekend.
From about 4pm on Sunday, all the flowers on display are sold off. To get there, take the A1 to Peterborough, then follow the A1139 to Eye Green where you should follow the A1073 through Crowland and Cowbit to Spalding. Directions to the Springfields Exhibition Hall will be signposted. For information call 01775 713253 or consult the website: www.d-l.co.uk.
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