Snowdrops on show

Angi KennedyFor many of us they are the first, and very welcome, sign of spring. Snowdrops show the undefeated beauty of nature after the dark days of winter and, as ANGI KENNEDY reports, it will soon be your chance to view them at their best.Angi Kennedy

Their delicate heads breaking through the cold soil, snowdrops herald the start of spring. The appearance of the little white flowers warms the heart, even if the February winds still bite at the hands and face.

But if you wrap up against the elements, there is nothing to beat a spring walk among the snowdrops. And among the perfect locations to do so are Lexham Hall and Bagthorpe Hall, which are opening for the Norfolk National Gardens Scheme (NGS) on February 8.

The two popular snowdrop walks are the first of this year's open garden season, which promises the opportunity to visit some 69 gardens around the county, including 14 new Norfolk NGS gardens which are expected to attract a lot of interest from garden lovers. Many of the county's traditional open gardens also have new features to attract the enthusiast or to enchant the novice.

The NGS was founded in 1927 to raise money for the nurses of the Queen's Nursing Institute by opening gardens of quality and interest to the public.

At that time, garden visiting was already a well-established pastime for the privileged few - as seen in Pride and Prejudice!

The simple, but radical, idea behind the scheme was to ask individuals to open their private gardens to the public for 'a shilling a head'. In the first year, 609 gardens opened and raised more than �8,000.

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The overwhelming success of these openings ensured that they became a regular feature of the fundraising activity of the nursing institute. A network of volunteer county organisers was set up and by 1931, more than 1,000 private gardens were open.

Country Life magazine produced a handbook, known as 'The Yellow Book' because of its bright cover. And to this day, the Yellow Book is a 'bible' to garden-lovers, detailing those that are opening during the year.

Of course, after the second world war, the National Health Service took on the district nursing service, but extra money was still needed to care for retired nurses and invest in training, so the NGS continued as before.

In 1948, the scheme offered support to a National Trust project to restore and preserve important gardens. In return, the National Trust opened many of its most prestigious gardens for the NGS.

Despite massive inflation in the post-war years, the entrance fee was held at one shilling. After a great deal of persuasion during the 1960s and 1970s more realistic entrance fees were introduced and the gardens began to raise significant amounts in donations.

And in 1980, the National Gardens Scheme Charitable Trust was established as an independent charity, then with the Queen Mother as patron and Princess Alice, Duchess of Gloucester, as president.

Since 1927, the NGS has raised more than �40m - �22m of that in the past decade. Over the years, Macmillan Cancer Relief, Marie Curie Cancer Care, Help the Hospices and Crossroads Caring for Carers have been among the many charities to benefit from donations.

Nowadays, the range of gardens open under the scheme is wide, and all the more wonderful for it. Most of the 3,600 gardens are privately owned.

In Norfolk we have small and quirky gardens, right up to the grandest of estates, and visitors often have the chance to meet the owners and find out first-hand about their treasured gardens, as well as often to enjoy home-made refreshments and buy plants.Last year, Lexham Hall welcomed nearly 1,500 visitors - including adults, children and dogs - to enjoy the snowdrop walk and garden. Bagthorpe Hall also received increased visitor numbers, with many enjoying home-made soup and cakes, and buying snowdrops to grow in their own gardens.

Lexham Hall has opened for more than 40 years to raise money for these worthwhile causes; with Mannington Hall Gardens, at Saxthorpe, now celebrating 30 years for the NGS.

County organiser Anthea Foster commented: 'Few people realise that through the open gardens in the National Gardens Scheme, �2m is raised each year for nursing, caring and gardening charities, supported by the patron, the Prince of Wales.

'The Yellow Book is the national trade mark of the scheme, featuring open gardens throughout England and Wales, and many counties, including Norfolk, have their own leaflet to showcase the open gardens and the county's great horticultural product of commercial nurseries and gardens.'

National Gardens Scheme Norfolk -

t Bagthorpe Hall, Bagthorpe, near East Rudham, between Fakenham and King's Lynn, PE31 6QY. Open Sunday, February 8, 11am- 4pm. Admission �3.50, children free. Snowdrops carpeting woodland walk, snowdrop walk. Homemade organic soups, cakes and tea.

t Lexham Hall, near Litcham, close to Swaffham, PE32 2QJ. Open Sunday, February 8, 11am-4pm; Wednesday May 13 and Sunday May 17; Wednesday September 23 11am-5pm. Admission �4, children free. Fine 17th/18th century hall (not open), with parkland, lake and river walks. Formal garden with terraces, yew hedges, roses and mixed borders, plus traditional kitchen garden with a crinkle crankle wall. Extensive collection of scented, winter flowering shrubs and woods, carpeted with snowdrops. Three-acre woodland garden with azaleas, rhododendrons, camellias, spring bulbs, and fine trees. Dogs on leads welcome in February only. Light refreshments available during February opening, home-made teas in May.

t Visit your local Tourist Information Centre to pick up a Norfolk National Gardens Scheme 2009 leaflet or visit www.norfolkgardens.scheme.

t If your garden is of high quality, character and at least 45 minutes' interest, contact county organiser Fiona Black on 01692 650247 to discuss opening your garden. You could also recommend a friend's garden.