The great snowdrops gardens in the Scottish Borders, such as Kailzie and Traquair, are well known. The work of generations of gardeners who continue to brave the cold to lovingly divide and spread clumps of white bulbs which establish under ancient trees, these gardens attract hundreds of visitors in late winter.
But they are not the only ones: there are other hidden treasures that, although more modest in size, are nonetheless full of winter joy. A case in point is Cringletie House, south of Eddleston, where snowdrops in the woodlands surrounding the David Bryce-designed house surprised and delighted the present owners, Johanna and Jacob van Houdt, when they moved there 11 years ago.
Perched on the side of a hill with dramatic views over rolling Peeblesshire countryside, this Victorian mansion, like many with established snowdrops – the bulbs are reputed to have first been imported from soldiers returning from the Crimea – boasts a long history.
In 1666 Sir Alexander Murray, of nearby Black Barony, obtained a Crown charter of the lands and built the original house for his second son. Three hundred years later his descendant, James Wolfe Murray, incorporated the original building into the present mansion, which was embellished with Bryce’s trademark towers. The house then came into the possession of the Sutherland family; at the turn of the last century Lt-Col Arthur Sutherland is reputed to have planted many of the remarkable trees alongside thousands of daffodils. In 1971 the B-listed house was sold and it has since been run as a country house hotel.
Dutch-born Johanna explains that when the couple arrived at Cringletie, the policies were badly neglected due in part to the damage inflicted by the local rabbit population. The damage, she adds, was ironically in part caused by the skill of the previous gardener whose lush borders near the house created a feast for rabbits.
While the couple contemplated this scene of disaster and worried about their own lack of expertise, Providence took a hand. Jim McKay, son of a former head gardener at Cringletie, appeared on the scene offering ongoing expertise on a consultancy basis. “Jim’s vision was to recreate the beautiful borders and restore the walled garden to its former productivity,” says Johanna. Everyone set to work, spending as much time as possible in the walled garden, conveniently situated just a short walk from the house; Jim’s local knowledge and contacts helped fill the gaps.
The scene is set on arrival by the impressive, mature trees that line the drive as it winds towards the sandstone house, which overlooks a formal terrace. Here a geometric outline of box encloses a formal gravel garden, where height comes from topiary, variegated holly and the lower box pyramids that punctuate and define the corners. Beyond are the woodlands where the snowdrops are mostly found.
In the years since the Van Houdts’ arrival, the snowdrops were split and replanted in specially marked areas. Recent severe winters hampered growth and in some areas the spread remained thin. “We keep hoping that nature will look after itself in such a way that in a few years’ time we have even more snowdrop carpets than we already have,” Johanna says.
Measuring just an acre, the Victorian walled garden benefits from a sunny, south-facing slope. Here, in winter, the most striking feature is the central, parallel yew hedge that divides the space, while adding structure and extra protection from the wind. The two sides of the rectangle are further divided into quadrants: while a small amount of vegetables are grown for use in the hotel, with high-quality vegetables readily available locally, the emphasis remains on design and planting.
Further plans, Johanna says, are being worked on for the summer. The top half of the space features a central metal arch: festooned with laburnum, which is a spectacular sight in spring, the yellow laburnum an echo of the daffodils, a key highlight of spring at Cringletie. To the left is a circular semi-raised heather and evergreen bed, punctuated with different heathers and roses for summer interest. The lower part of the garden is, unusually, laid out as a play area for children with giant chess and draughts boards standing ready for use, and a space for petanque.
Rising up behind the house is the dell or glen threaded by the burn that runs into the Eddleston water below. A narrow path takes you up the hill where a couple of bridges cross the burn and wind below the bare outline of the tall beech trees. From here you can stand and look across the valley with its winter landscape of sheep grazing in brown fields, only partly sheltered by stands of dark green conifers. It is a magnificent sight and one that has remained unchanged for generations. Under the care and enthusiasm of the current owners, Cringletie, currently being restored, looks set to survive and flourish.
• Cringletie House Hotel, Peebles EH45 8PL is signposted off the A703 south of Eddleston. The grounds and gardens are open all year round and the snowdrops should start to appear towards the end of January, tel: 01721 725750, www.cringletie.com
Kailzie Gardens, By Peebles, EH45 9HT is also open for snowdrops. The restaurant is open Wednesday-Sunday in winter, www.kailziegardens.com
Traquair, Traquair House, Innerleithen, Peeblesshire EH44 6PW has carpets of snowdrops from late January, www.traquair.co.uk