Updated: Feb 11
The first signs of spring are always welcome. Snowdrops and aconites are two pf the species that many people in Europe living amidst suitable temperate habitats look out for as an indicator that the worst of winter weather will soon be over and the soil is beginning to warm in anticipation of summer sun and chlorophyllic growth.
At Welford Park in Berkshire the snowdrops of February are an even more welcome sight especially to the charitable beneficiaries of the money raised by staff and volunteers who help the Welford Estate owners show off these beautiful natural assets. These charities have gained to the total of c£3 million and it looks as if the numbers of visitors prepared to pay for the pleasure of walking the pathways of the estate grounds and woodlands will show a similar return in 2020 - even if Storm Ciara temporarily dents the enthusiasm of some potential travellers. Go see these beautiful plants before nature rewraps them under the ground in their tiny smug bulbs.
The other big draw for the punters is to see the location of the celebrated TV programme 'Bake-Off' which judges the winsome contestants increasingly tricky efforts at baking and confectionary items in a competition tent located on a lawn directly in front of the main house next to the gurgling River Lambourn. Fans of the show can forensically examine the two-tone grass where the showcase structure sits in the summer months; although any escapee hundreds and thousands and glacé cherries seem to have been gobbled by the birds.
Welford Park was the scene of other experimental creations in Victorian and Edwardian times when plant-breeder Charles Ross was Head Gardener here to the Archer-Houblon family of bankers. He cross-bred many new apple varieties including the one that bears his name (albeit originally named the 'Thomas Arnold Knight' in 1890) and a small grocery store of others, including; Welford Park Nonsuch (1864), Mrs Phillimore (1896), Paroquet (1897), Sunrise (1897), Rival (1900), Houblon (1901), Hector MacDonald (1904), Encore (1906), Renown (1908), Redwing (1908) and the Charlotte Eyre (1911). You can learn more about Berkshire apples and all things cyder-ish in my book 'Apples, Berkshire, Cider' published by Two Rivers Press (with co-creators Pip Hall and the late Peter Hay) but now sadly out of print although copies can still be found (individually numbered by hand - that was an evening to remember!). The car park for the snowdrops is on the site of the former Lambourn Valley Railway station mentioned in my (still in print!) Two Rivers Press book 'Bizarre Berkshire'.
Nearby, on and under the grassy sward of the North Wessex Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty at RAF Welford, is the rather non-beautiful storage depot for a $160 million stockpile of 15,000 USAF bombs and munitions and maybe, possibly nuclear warheads (allegedly). As nobody will either admit or deny the potential presence of such lethal radioactive materials on British soil it is pure speculation. Just pray that nobody slips and drops one in the snow one early spring, or West Berkshire will be properly baked for the next millennium or three. See what happened to RAF Fauld at 11.11 on 27 November 1944...improbable but true.