A programme of themed Shaftesbury walks will launch in February. The organiser aims to guide visitors and residents around our stunning viewpoints, and the first monthly event will showcase the impressive snowdrop displays around the town.
Peter Wells formed the Walking for Health group in 2018 with a purpose in mind – he wanted to arrange a social event that kept residents fit and active whilst they admired Shaftesbury’s scenery. Last February, Peter’s snowdrop walk proved his most popular to date. Fifty-nine people embarked on either a thirty-minute or hour-long stroll. But the wide age range and mixed abilities of the walkers encouraged Peter to rethink his plans for 2020.
“On the final part of the walk, it took about twenty minutes from the first person arriving on Park Walk to the last person. We had a meeting with our leaders and agreed that this was ‘Walking for Health’. We needed to keep the focus on the reason that people do it and not walk for a theme. So, we now have a breakaway. We are doing this separately from Walking for Health,” said Peter.
Peter also volunteers on the Town Council’s tourism group, the Visitor Experience Advisory Committee. He has recognised the demand for guided walks to lead people to Shaftesbury’s special and undiscovered places. Peter’s two snowdrop strolls will pave the way for more seasonal events.
“We want to develop a different theme each month. We are creating another walking group, separate to Walking for Health. Hopefully, our first walk for the snowdrops will be successful as our first venture into themed walks for Shaftesbury,” he said.
I joined Peter and Snowdrops Season committee member Rachel Diment at 11am on Sunday. The pair were retracing their steps on last year’s snowdrop walk route. “Because we are not worried about trying to stick to the rigorous time limits that we have for Walking for Health, we have set a two-hour walk, which gives plenty of time to walk across Shaftesbury and to stop and look. When we are on our health walks we don’t want to stop. We want to keep the momentum going. Rachel and I will add in different places on the day, depending on how things are flowering,” said Peter.
Rachel will offer walkers plenty of snowdrops facts, although she is modest about her knowledge. “If I can, I will answer questions but I’m not an expert,” she said. “I was a very keen gardener and I did have snowdrops in my garden when I lived in Kent. When I discovered Shaftesbury’s snowdrops it was a wonderful thing to be involved with, to carry on my gardening interest.”
The first pause on Peter and Rachel’s route recce was at the library. Rachel peered down at the beds that run alongside the building’s walls. “A few years ago, as part of the Great Get-together in remembrance of Jo Cox, Shaftesbury Snowdrops invited people to plant snowdrops and to think about maybe granddad or a member of the family who was no longer here. Now we have those snowdrops coming up in the library garden. We think it is important, especially for the little ones. They can say ‘I planted that one. That’s my snowdrop’ – even if it might not be exactly their snowdrop,” said Rachel.
We strode along Bell Street and turned left into Swan’s Yard. At the High Street end, temporary metal fencing had been erected to keep the public away from the works to refurbish the former Edinburgh Woollen Mill store. The barrier shielded the tiny white snowdrops from people or animals. They had started to flower.
Rachel isn’t concerned that some snowdrops might peak too soon, before the Snowdrop Season events. “I flapped about it last year when we were putting on a big display at the Abbey, but Chris Horsfall, who is an expert, told me not to worry,” said Rachel, who told me that he claimed that the snowdrops have their own internal ‘body clock’ and know when to come out.
However many snowdrops pop up, Rachel hopes that businesses will add extra flowers to bolster the display for next month’s events, especially as BBC1’s Countryfile will be filming on 6th and 7th of February. “Let’s make it a real snowdrop town. The hope is that people will take a bit of ownership and make it so there are snowdrops whereever you look,” she said.
The snowdrops that we see around town are the everyday varieties, rather than more exotic and expensive types. “These are just Galanthus nivalis,” said Rachel, pointing to the fenced-off flowers. “There are two types that we will see. The others are ‘Flore Pleno’, another quite common variety. We haven’t got any of the heritage varieties around the town yet, but there is a plan to put some out.”
In her time as a snowdrop volunteer, Rachel has learned two really interesting facts about the flowers. Her first surprise was that collectors, known as galanthophiles, pay a lot of money to buy bulbs at events like the Town Hall sale on 8th February. Bulbs can change hands for tens or hundreds of pounds each. It is a consideration for the snowdrop team when planting rarer specimens that they have been given.
“If you identify them, somebody can look them up and say, ‘That’s £10 a bulb’. If they were not a very nice person, they might help themselves. We would hope that most people are honest. When we put the heritage varieties out around the town, we will know what they are, but we won’t put the labels with them,” said Rachel.
We continued across town, along Park Walk, and started to descend Stoney Path. “They always come out a little bit earlier here. I just think they are better sheltered and look so beautiful on slopes. It seems to suit them,” said Rachel.
Peter and Rachel paused to discuss how to alter the walkers’ route so the snowdrop spotters would see the flowers alongside both Stoney Path and Pine Walk. They quickly decided on an amended circuit. Most of the snowdrops seem to be in the west of the town. I asked Rachel why. “They don’t like dry conditions in full sun. Interestingly, they are not meant to like really wet conditions, either. But some of the ones in Trinity are in a very boggy corner and they seem to love it there. They do their own thing,” she smiled.
Rachel says snowdrops are less likely to flourish on the new estate, partly because the soil has been turned over a lot. “It’s not ideal. If the soil is rubble and clay, nothing is going to want to grow in that. It’s just a question of trying to find the right aspect and the right moisture content and not too much sun.”
100,000 bulbs were originally planted, as a legacy of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. Last year, Rachel and the snowdrops volunteers put more in the ground. “Down in St James and also at the Friends Meeting House garden. We are hoping that it will be an imposing display,” said Rachel. “The team cut diagonally across the lawn so you should have a striking path of snowdrops. It will be beautiful for the people who use the Meeting House for worship and people walking past.”
Rachel then revealed the second fascinating fact she has learned. “Snowdrops multiply, like a lot of bulbs, via the ‘Fibonacci sequence’. It’s a mathematical formula, so the first year you’ll just get one bulb, in the next year you’ll get two and in the next year you’ll get four,” explained Rachel.
Peter, a maths tutor, became enthused that the sequence means each year’s number of bulbs should be the sum of the numbers of bulbs in the two preceding years. “It appears in nature all over the place,” he said.
“All bulbs will multiply,” added Rachel. “You plant one and then after a few years you get quite a clump and you just spread them out a bit more. They will multiply naturally.”
Minutes later, we were admiring the view across to Melbury from the decking at the far end of the Rolt Millennium Green. The town and St James’ Church clocks competed with each other to announce that it was midday. Our walk was halfway through. Rachel says walkers will be offered refreshment at St James’ Church. “They will put on some teas for us so we can stop with them and enjoy the snowdrops in the churchyard.”
Rachel and Peter are hosting two walks – on Sunday 9th February at noon and on Sunday 16th February, starting at 10am. The strolls last two hours and they are free. They start from Bell Street car park.
Peter hopes that anybody driving up the A350 to join the event will be impressed by the display at the town’s boundary. “There’s a wonderful bank of snowdrops as you come into Shaftesbury from Cann, on the left-hand side where the ‘Welcome to Shaftesbury,’ sign is,” said Peter. “That was one of the aspirations of the project, that all of the gateways to the town had snowdrops and as you arrived you’d say how wonderful the snowdrops are,” said Rachel.
And hopefully, a record number of walkers will agree with the organisers of the first of many monthly themed walks.