THE annual Snowdrop Walk round the 150-acre grounds at Hopetoun House near South Queensferry could easily be termed a Snowdrop Safari.
Not only does the walk include a chance to see the drifts and clumps of snowdrops scattered throughout this 300-year-old, tree-filled landscape, it also offers an opportunity to spot wildlife, such as the estate’s famous herd of red deer. Also, while enjoying some of the views at the house, just ten miles north of Edinburgh, you might spot a buzzard or a pair of sparrowhawks overhead.
Coined by Emily Stair, who uses the term to describe tours in a tractor-pulled trailer around the snowdrop-filled grounds of Castle Kennedy near Stranraer, Snowdrop Safaris add an exciting dimension to a winter walk. And as public fascination with these small white bulbs shows no sign of waning, they are surely set to grow.
At Hopetoun the tour, organised by the estate’s ranger Peter Stevens, starts a stone’s throw from the Walled Garden, currently closed for restoration under the skilled eye of Lady Hopetoun, on what her husband happily describes as “a draconian budget”, and takes you past the magnificent Adam-designed house. Home to the Hope family since the 1600s, the house is currently occupied by Andrew and Skye Hopetoun, and their three children.
Lady Hopetoun is a keen gardener and for her, snowdrops are an exciting sign of spring. “I particularly love the arrival of the snowdrops and their suggestion of spring, always keeping a note of the first sighting,” she says. “Splitting the snowdrops is also one of my favourite gardening jobs, it gives such a lasting effect. There are now numerous areas around Hopetoun where they are looking nicely established having only been a few bulbs moved in the green in the very recent past – they give us huge pleasure.”
Sited south of the house the Spring Garden is one of the first areas you reach walking past the house. Here, Stevens explains, the light drifts of snowdrops are lifted, divided and replanted in March by the Hopetoun Green volunteers who meet monthly. “Snowdrops flourish in the sandy soil close to the Forth,” he says.
Despite having worked here for seven years he points out that, no matter how many times he walks this path along the side of the old bowling green, the view back towards the southern façade of the house always retains its excitement. From this vantage point you can clearly see the new façade attached to the older, original house. “It’s incredible how it retains its appeal 300 years after it was built,” he adds.
Here, on the far side of the Thunderbolt Burn, an especially rich drift of snowdrops is, Peter says, his favourite. Here, too, he points out the newly emerging daffodils alongside early signs of the bluebells that carpet the grounds in May. Scent at that time comes from the substantial plantings of azaleas that flank the Pulpit, a stone pavilion removed from the original façade of the house and placed where it lifts the eye towards the end of a vista.
Five wide vistas radiate from the west façade of the house, at the end of which are views over the wider estate and farm land punctuated by grazing sheep. Of special interest is the Lime Avenue, which, Stevens says, “looks stunning year round. Bare or in snow in winter, lime green in spring, and red and gold in autumn.”
The central vista or West Lawn is punctuated with the classical, stone-edged round pond. Further along, through more woodlands, past Hope’s Walk, which is reached through a rustic metal gate, you come to the Sea Walk. Here, round a corner you reach the East Bastion Viewpoint, a metal railing set in the stone wall, the vantage point from which you look down on the Deer Park or up over the Forth.
As we stand quietly the deer, grazing at a short distance, slowly lift their heads and, following the lead of the stag, come towards us. Unchanged by the passage of time, it’s a moving sight. The deer, Stevens explains, are fed in winter with hay and concentrates. Having the chance to observe a herd at such close quarters is remarkable.
Walking back between parallel yew hedges – the policies are planted with yew, holly and rhododendrons, all of which act as an effective windbreak while adding colour to the winter landscape – there is a view down the slope over the cascade of snowdrops that cling to the side of the hill and on down towards the homes of badgers and foxes.
For Stevens, who punctuates the tour with anecdotes, this is an exciting time for tree viewing. “I much prefer the trees in winter,” he says, looking up at a magnificent 300-year-old Sweet Chestnut, Castanea sativa. “You can see their outline and admire their branches.” He is equally enthusiastic at the sight of a 300-year-old Atlas Cedar, Cedrus Atlantica, whose rounded, blue outline stands out clear against the bare hardwoods. Many of the trees were planted when the house was built and a gradual replanting programme is being developed. n
• Hopetoun House, South Queensferry, EH30 9SL (0131-319 3956, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.hopetoun.co.uk). The grounds will be open for the Snowdrop Festival on Sunday 16 February 2014, 10:30am-4pm. Peter Stevens will be leading a guided walk from 2pm-3.30pm for no additional cost, but it does require pre-booking. Tea, coffee and baked goods will also be available.
Scattered in the grounds are three or four clumps of unidentified specialist snowdrops. Peter is offering a free 2014 season ticket to Hopetoun House and Grounds to the first person able to identify the different varieties.