Yesterday was a cold and frosty day, my favourite sort of winter's day. Hoar frost sparkled on the seed heads of the fennel; it rimed the leaves and berries of the ivy and clung to the cobwebs, making them shimmer in the low winter sun. The sky was blue and clear, blackbirds and blue tits called to each other as they flitted in the branches of the apple tree, and in between the calls were little trills and arpeggios, almost as if they were practising their spring songs.
I stood for a while taking it all in and thinking how much I love this season. And then I glanced down. Pushing through the earth under the gooseberry and blackcurrant bushes, were little pointed green shoots; around them the ground was hard and frost bitten, but it wasn’t putting them off, not a bit of it. Snowdrops! And immediately I was looking forward to spring.
There is something so hopeful about snowdrops, and there are so many legends and country names for them, generations of country folk must have loved them and looked forward to their return each year, one of the very first signs of warmer days to come.
The name by which I’ve always known them is Fair Maids of February, beautiful maids in their long white gowns edged in fairy green. Candlemas Bells is another country name, showing their close association to Candlemas Day, an old verse marks their importance:
Candlemas is held on 2nd February; when Christianity came to our shores Candlemas overlaid Imbolc, one of the four great Celtic festivals of the year, which marked the reawakening of the land after its long winter sleep.
There are lots of snowdrop stories but I think one of my favourites is in Richard Mabey’s Flora Britannica *. There is a colony of snowdrops in the churchyard of Monkton in Wiltshire which “is a living memorial to the Revd. J. Brinsdon, an eighteenth century incumbent: ‘Among other things he tried his best to teach the children to read and write. To make them more eager to learn the alphabet, he planted snowdrops in the churchyard in the shape of letters. After his death the snowdrops spread all over the churchyard’”.
Snowdrops at Little Malvern Priory
Snowdrops truly are magical flowers; they appear delicate, fragile, one imagines that one strong gust of winter wind, a hard frost or a snow fall and they’ll be done for. Yet they stand proud in the borders, flowering while all around them sleep, telling us that no matter how cold and dark it may be now, the light will return and spring is just around the corner.
* Flora Britannica, Richard Mabey p.423
Published by Sinclair-Stevenson 1996, ISBN: 1 85619 377 2
Available to buy here, at the Stillroom or Hand Embroidery Collections