Colesbourne has been described by Country Life as ‘England’s greatest snowdrop garden’ and February is the time to visit. Here, these early harbingers of Spring spread in luxurious drifts through the mature woodland, carpeting the ground, highlighted by the sunlight through the trees. Spreading across the delightful Churn valley in the Cotswolds, this magnificent snowdrop collection was begun by Henry Elwes more than century ago. When he discovered Galanthus Elwesii and brought the first snowdrops back from western Turkey in 1874, it was the beginning of a passion which continues at Colesbourne today.
Henry John Elwes, or ‘H.J. Elwes’ (1846-1922) was a traveller and naturalist with a Victorian passion for adventure and plant-finding, and he also discovered new species of Crocus and Fritillaria. He was author of Monograph of the Genus Lilium (1880) in which all the known species of lily were described and illustrated in plates by the botanical artist Walter Hood Fitch. His Trees of Great Britain and Ireland was published in seven parts between 1906 and 1913, and this important work was a monumental task which involved him travelling through the United Kingdom visiting most notable trees and woodlands. Elwes saved Curtis’s Botanical Magazine from collapse by purchasing it and presenting it to the RHS, who continue to publish it today. The magazine describes and illustrates unusual plants and Elwes grew specimens for over a hundred of its plates. He published articles on botany, horticulture and was also an expert on Asian ornithology. At Colesbourne, he founded a ‘Centenary Plantation’ of trees of many species grown from seed collected in 1900, which are now mature in the Arboretum. Today there are eight British champions, including a Turkish hazel, a black oak (Quercus velutina) and a Canadian poplar almost forty metres tall.
The snowdrop collection at Colesbourne survived in the woodland until the current owners, Sir Henry Elwes and his wife Carolyn took an interest in the collection, extending the spread by lifting and dividing clumps of dormant bulbs and re-planting them into larger drifts. Now thousands are re-planted each year for maximum spread and effect, and the collection includes around 250 cultivars. The snowdrops are interrupted here and there by groups of yellow Winter Aconites, pink Cyclamen Coum and hellebores. A little later they are joined by banks of crocuses, daffodils and tulips. There is also a great display of native wild flowers such as wood anemones, bluebells, cowslips and primroses.
In a hollow is an eighteenth century ice house which was once a feature of a Japanese garden. Here is a Cryptomeria japonica brought back from Japan by H. J. Elwes and also a group of Petasites japonicus, also known asFuki, which flowers in February. On the opposite side of the drive, the Spring Garden shows off more choice snowdrops, carefully labelled for the conoisseur.
Colesbourne is about halfway between Cheltenham and Cirencester and the River Churn, which flows through the grounds, is the longest tributary of the Thames, rising at Seven Springs, and joining the Thames at Cricklade. A small brook was dammed in 1922 to create a beautiful lake which has more snowdrops as well as wild wood anemones and bluebells on its banks. Since 2003, the gardens have been managed by Dr. John Grimshaw, and continue to be developed in a sensitive but highly effective way, helping Spring to give its best show.
This is a woodland garden at its very best. Do come and visit.