Shaftesbury Snowdrop Season is underway and there’s an easy way to take in the spectacle of some of these seasonal flowers in bloom. Shaftesbury’s Walking For Health group is hosting guided snowdrop spotting walks.
The first is tomorrow, Wednesday 6th February, and ThisIsAlfred’ s Keri Jones joined walk organiser Peter Wells.
In the last year, Walking For Health has been a Shaftesbury success story. Dozens of locals stretch their legs, take in the scenery and socialise during the regular events. “The walk tomorrow be walk number 57, so we’re just over a year old,” said Peter.
Peter seems particularly proud of the resilience of his ramblers. Even the worst of Shaftesbury’s weather hasn’t damped enthusiasm. “We have cut walks short, we have done alternatives because of really hot weather, but we’ve never missed a walk,” he said.
I joined Peter on a misty, murky morning as he prepared for his snowdrop stroll. “It’s nice to have a bit of a theme on a walk,” said Peter, standing in the Trinity churchyard staring at his iPhone screen. He wasn’t lost, although the low cloud was helping the path through the graveyard vanish into grey mist before the end of the line of lime trees.
He was studying an online chart of snowdrop plantings posted on the Snowdrops Season website. “It’s a map of their thirty minute town walk. We’re going to do a recce of that walk today, ready for tomorrow’s walk,” he said.
Peter knows where he is going. He has hosted dozens of these walks but he needed to be sure where to pause, so walkers can enjoy the snowdrops. “I don’t want to be looking around for them. I want to be able to find the places and point them out as I am walking around tomorrow. Then I can stop thinking about the walk and focus on the people I’m walking with,” he smiled.
The route we were taking stretched along Park Walk, down Stony Path, along Laundry Lane, through St James and Layton Lane, up Hawkesdene Lane and back to town along Salisbury Street. It is all on established, surfaced paths and roads. Nevertheless, Peter and his walk leaders always check their circuit beforehand. His colleague Joanne has had to alter her planned path around town recently. “She went down Brinscombe Lane, which is an ordinary right of way, but it was so muddy and slippery. So she’s changed the route because of that.”
In true British tradition, the stoicism of being undefeated by weather goes hand in hand with the obligation to risk assess the route. There are many potential problems that Peter needs to be aware of. “I check for trip hazards, particularly where we’re walking along the pavement,” he said. “Last year, we were walking along Bimport and a walker was chatting away to a friend. She missed her footing on the edge of the pavement and went over into the road. Obviously that’s something we want to avoid and it’s an issue with the narrow pavements.”
Peter says the most precarious patch is in St James, where the pavement ‘disappears’. He described the area. “In the stretch between the school and the pub, there are a few places where the pavement is non-existent. There’s not much traffic but should there be any vehicles, there’s not much space to go.”
Irresponsible pet owners cause a headache rather than a hazard. “Dog mess is number three on my list, would you believe?” laughed Peter. On a previous Walking For Health walk I was amused when somebody at the front of the group shouted ‘dog poo!’ and his words were repeated down the line of walkers like Chinese whispers.
“Nobody picks it up,” said Peter, disapprovingly. “You’re not going to go out of your way to pick up other people’s dog mess but when we are on a walk I always carry dog bags. If there’s an obvious hazard, I pick it up, then it’s gone for everybody, not just us.”
I didn’t expect that there was so much to do and such potentially unpleasant activity when arranging these weekly walks. Peter also removes rubbish. “If I see litter, where it makes the place look unsightly and it isn’t going to necessarily be cleared up by the Council, then I tend to pick it up and shove up in my pocket, go to nearest bin and tip it out. The nearest bin might be miles away. But if you don’t pick it up then who will?” Peter asked.
We returned to Peter’s checklist of risks. “Inclines. We’re going to see a few of those. You don’t want to get people who are out on a Walk For Health to have to climb hills a lot. We can’t avoid it in Shaftesbury unless we just do the walk in the town,” Peter accepts, before continuing. “Stiles are a problem. There was a walk a few months ago with twelve stiles and that’s a lot. It causes stop-start walking. That’s not comfortable for anybody and some people have real issues with stiles.”
I enjoyed my previous Walking For Health event because when you stroll with someone who has taken the same route many times before, they point out sights that are easy to miss. In the last year Peter has grown to know Shaftesbury very well. He told me of the perils of slippery Shooters Lane and why the group avoid it in the current wet weather. And three-quarters of the way down Stony Path, we veered off to the left, along a steep right of way that I didn’t know existed. We stopped as we reached the top of Laundry Lane.
Peter told me that the large green hedge was once carved into a steam engine and carriage shape – train set topiary. Today, it resembles a cat. “That’s good isn’t it? You can’t see it from Stony Path. It just looks like another bush. You’re probably concentrating far more on what your feet are doing than what’s to your left, through the trees,” said Peter. “I think it is wonderful. A little pussycat with bottle green eyes.” The gardener had pressed plastic milk bottle tops into the hedge to create cats’ eyes.
Peter decided to offer a snowdrop walk following a suggestion made by Snowdrop Season organiser, Pam Cruikshank. The name of Peter’s more relaxed stroller walk caused some confusion, though. “Pam rang me up and she said, ‘This stroller walk of yours – can other people apart from young mums or dads come on it?’ She was talking the American term for a pushchair, which is a stroller,” said Peter. “When we decided to categorise our walks as striders and strollers, I’d never thought that would be how people would interpret it. Perhaps we ought to call these ones ‘saunter’ walks,” he joked.
We paused on Park Walk, near the snowdrop plaque. A few weeks ago Pam had said that the flowers were blooming early. It seems that the cold snap has slowed them down and Peter thinks that fewer bulbs are out compared to this period in 2018.
“Last year that was an absolute picture,” he said, pointing to the grassy bank where a few snowdrops had emerged. “And we’ve got a lovely photo of the group stood behind the wall by the kissing gate with a big spray of snowdrops in front of them.”
It was true that some stretches of the stroll around Layton and Hawkesdene Lanes offered us very few snowdrop sightings. “They are not as profuse as they were last year but I’m hoping that by the time we get to the 20th there’ll be a lot more of them. On tomorrow’s walk, there aren’t going to be as many,” Peter advised.
Hopefully the snowdrops will bloom in the milder weather and Peter’s walkers can take in the sight of the carpet of white flowers in their stride. “There’s another one in two weeks time, our Strider Snowdrop Walk, and that will be based on the longer walk, the three mile walk that is also on the Snowdrops website,” said Peter.
The stroller walk meets outside Tesco at 10.15am on 6th February. And you can stride past the snowdrops on the 3-mile strider circuit, which leaves the supermarket at 10.15am on Wednesday 20th.
The Snowdrop Season Arts Exhibition opens at Shaftesbury Arts Centre on Friday 8th February and runs until Saturday 16th February. On Saturday 9th February, snowdrop fans can buy and sell the plants in the Town Hall. The Abbey will be open for snowdrop displays over that weekend.
Another highlight is the lantern-making workshop and giant snowdrop lantern parade on Saturday 23rd February. You can get detailed information about all of the events in the pop-up snowdrop shop, inside the Tourist Information Centre on Bell Street.