ANCIENT PLANTINGS THRIVE TO DELIGHT VISITORS WITH A WINTER CASCADE OF WHITE BLOOMS
In the heart of Exmoor lies a hidden valley that comes to life at one of the darkest times of the year, as it fills with a shimmering cascade of diminutive white flowers. For just four weeks in February, this special place opens to visitors who flock to see its carpet of beautiful snowdrops. The flowers tumble down the valley sides and cover the ground on either side of the River Avill.
The valley lies less than a mile north of the hamlet of Wheddon Cross, near Cutcombe in Somerset. It provides the perfect conditions for snowdrops. They thrive in the partial shade and nutrient-rich soil of deciduous woodland. The water that runs through it keeps the soil preferably moist. The River Avill rises on the eastern slopes of Dunkery Beacon, the highest point of Exmoor, two miles away to the north-west. The small, fast-flowing river tumbles into the valley where its clear waters once powered a sawmill that processed larch and oak from the woods. Today, buzzards and ravens cruise above the woodland, while smaller birds such as great tits haunt the canopy.
The trees that flank the valley slopes are part of ancient woodland that has an unbroken link back to primary forest. Those along the river are more recent, probably having developed naturally over the past 100 years. The trees are mixed deciduous species, much of it oak.
No one knows precisely how many flowers will appear each season, with climate and weather affecting numbers. In a good year, they spread as far as the eye can see.
“We are completely reliant on the weather which governs how the snowdrops perform,” says Eric Clarbull. He is the chairman of the Cutcombe Parish Council sub-committee that oversees the valley’s annual opening. “If it’s mild in winter, the snowdrops appear too early for the opening. If there’s frost in December or January, it holds them back, helping give a good show throughout February.”
The valley’s snowdrops are Galanthus nivalis. The Latin name translates as snowy milk flower, because they are said to have the appearance of three drops of milk, hanging from a stem. All snowdrops grow from small, round bulbs and are perennial. G. nivalis reaches 6in (15cm) or more in height. The plant has narrow basal leaves from which the stem rises to support a single pendant, honey-scented flower approximately 3/4in (2cm) long. This comprises an outer and inner layer with three segments. These are known as tepals, a term used when it is difficult to differentiate between petals and sepals, the outer part of the flower that protects the petals while in bud. At the base is an ovary, which produces seed when the flower has been fertilised.
When the flowers are in bud, they stand bolt upright. A slender stem, known as a pedicel, emerges from the top of the flower stem. When fully open, the flower dangles elegantly from the pedicel. When the flowerhead is gently lifted, it reveals its face which has delicate green markings inside. These are nectar guides and have more fragrance than the rest of the flower to help draw in pollinating insects.
Once pollinated, the seeds start to form. As the ovary capsule ripens and swells, the weight bends the stalk down until it rests on the ground. Snowdrop seed has an appendage known as an elaiosome. This is a small body rich in fatty acids attractive to ants. They visit the ripening pods, carrying off the elaiosomes, discarding the unwanted seed on the way. Plants grown from seed can take three years to flower.
The other way snowdrops proliferate is by the bulbs splitting, producing bulblets. Over the years the clumps become large. Some may be distributed by foraging mammals such as squirrels.
For centuries, the snowdrop valley remained a hidden gem, known only to locals. Twenty years ago, the outside world started to hear of its beauty and visitors started to arrive in great numbers. In an effort to control traffic, a park and ride scheme has run for the last 20 years, with the valley road closed to anyone except residents.
A short, circular stroll of about half a mile meanders through the valley floor on both sides of the river, weaving through the snowdrops. The woodland area has no precise boundary, but covers approximately five acres.
Planning for the opening starts in August each year. A local coordinator is appointed to oversee and organise the volunteers who help run the event, organise the road closure and the bus company contract. At the same time the woodland has to be managed.
“Sometimes bad weather brings down trees across the paths,” says Eric. “These need clearing to ensure safe access to the snowdrops, although the snowdrops’ growing area is left undisturbed. We also need to prevent brambles and other vegetation from overtaking the ground and blocking out the light. The flooding of recent years washed out many bulbs, sending snowdrops downstream where they continue to flourish in the river banks.”
Within living memory, snowdrops from the valley were picked and sold in Minehead, eight miles to the north on the Somerset coast. Today they are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981, and picking or uprooting the snowdrops in the valley is illegal.
The valley’s 10,000 visitors a year can enjoy a walk here as an invigorating antidote to the grey days of winter. This confection of tiny constellations is a reminder that spring is not far away.
Words: Simone Stanbrook-Bryne Photography: Alamy