GALANTHOPHILES will be in Guisborough this weekend where a garden is open to the public showing off 350 varieties of galanthus, including one that is named after a member of a famous Darlington banking family, and another which is named after a miserable old git.

Galanthus are more commonly referred to as Candlemas bells, Mary's taper, snowpiercers, February fairmaids or dingle-dangles.

Or simply snowdrops, a name that comes from the Greek 'gala' meaning 'milk' and 'anthos' meaning 'plant'.

When they push their heroic heads through our frozen ground, they act as the first heralds of an English spring, but they are not really English at all. They originate from the Black Sea area of Turkey, Russia and Ukraine, and they don’t like the frozen north at all – they are unheard of in Scandinavia.

The Northern Echo: Snowdrops in the rain at Tudor Croft, Guisborough, by Ohla VovkSnowdrops in the rain at Tudor Croft, Guisborough, by Ohla Vovk

The Romans believed they were "stars brought down from heaven" and brought them to this country.

They should be in flower by February 2, which is Candlemas, the celebration of the Purification of the Virgin Mary 40 days after the birth of Christ when Candlemas bells – symbols of purity and light – were processed into church. The shape, colour and flowering of the snowdrops led them to be associated with the festival, and they were probably first planted in churchyards.


But they are great escape artistes, and the Flora Britannica of 1804 reported that the banks of the Tees at Blackwell and Coniscliffe were one of the best places in the country to see them.

They had their uses in gardens as well. In the days when toilets were outside, people planted them along the path so that in the grey gloaming of a February evening, there was a bright guide to the privy.

Snowdrops hit the big time in the 1850s when British soldiers, fighting in Crimea, were amazed at how they carpeted the landscape like a fall of snow. They called them “the flower of consolation”, and noted that the galanthus plicatus of Crimea had different, pleated leaves compared to the common galanthus nivalis back home, so the soldiers scooped some up as souvenirs or posted them home to their sweethearts.

More than that, The Times’s war correspondent reported that “the soil, wherever a flower has the chance of springing up, pours forth multitudes of snowdrops”, and he said that the brave flowers were forcing their way up “through the crevices of piles of shot and peering out from under shells and heavy ordnance”.

The snowdrop became an emblem of the Crimean War – like the red poppy became the emblem of the First World War trenches – and suddenly every Victorian was a galanthophile. Plant collectors were sent out around the world to find new varieties, and today there are more than 2,500.

The Northern Echo: Mike Heagney surrounded by Galanthus William BackhouseMike Heagney surrounded by Galanthus James Backhouse

In his garden at Tudor Croft in Guisborough, Mike Heagney has collected more than 350 varieties in the last 30 years.

They include Galanthus grumpy which, on its inside, has the unmistakeable face of a miserable old git (below).

The Northern Echo: Galanthus grumpy, because it looks like a miserable old git

And there’s Galanthus James Backhouse.

The Northern Echo: Galanthus William Backhouse

The first James Backhouse founded a bank in Darlington in 1774. Under his sons, it supported the opening of the Stockton & Darlington Railway in 1825.

His grandson, James, was born in Darlington in 1794. He became an apprentice chemist in the town, but also went exploring Teesdale with leadminer John Binks, who is regarded as having discovered many of the dale’s rarest plants. This inspired James to buy a nursery in York in 1815 in conjunction with his older brother, Thomas.


Like all Backhouses, James was a Quaker, and, following the death of his wife, he embarked on a ten-year missionary and humanitarian journey to Australia, Tasmania, Mauritius and South Africa. He was particularly concerned about the way indigenous people were being treated, but he also found time to send plant specimens back to the nursery.

The Northern Echo: James Backhouse (1794-1869), who founded the nursery in YorkJames Backhouse (1794-1869), who founded the nursery in York

He returned in 1840 and discovered a new craze in British gardening: Alpine rock gardens were becoming fashionable as garden owners wanted authentic settings to show off the new plants that plant explorers, like James, were making available. James positioned his nursery so that by his death, in 1869, it was one of the leading plant-sellers and Alpine specialists in the country.

Two more generations of James Backhouse took on the nursery which created of two of the most extraordinary rock gardens in the country at the start of the 20th Century.

The Northern Echo: The Aysgarth Edwardian rock garden, built by James Backhouse of York, is one of Yorkshire's most unusual listed buildingsThe Aysgarth Edwardian rock garden, built by James Backhouse of York, is one of Yorkshire's most unusual listed buildings

In Aysgarth, Backhouses built what is now Yorkshire’s most remarkable listed building: an artful pile of stone shaped to create a waterfall, a plunge pool and a mountain pass all on a flat rectangle of land.

In Henley-on-Thames, in Oxfordshire, they built a replica of the Matterhorn for Sir Frank Crisp – a mountain 40ft high made from 7,000 tons of Yorkshire millstone grit in the garden of a mansion that for decades was owned by Beatle George Harrison.

From 1877, the fourth James Backhouse starting selling a snowdrop he had bred with a uniquely shaped flower, and that bulb now bears his name.

It can be found at Tudor Croft growing in a clump above the Hutton Beck which races through the gardens like a mountain stream on its way to the sea at Saltburn.

The gardens were laid out by Backhouses in the mid 1930s, with the millstone grit being augmented by ancient carved stones bought from the ruins of Gisborough Priory and with bricks made at Commondale. Their client was Reg Crossley, whose family had since 1871 owned the country’s largest brickworks on the North York Moors.

As well as red bricks, Commondale clay was turned into sanitaryware of pipes and tiles and then, in the 1920s, Tyneside sculptor Walter Scott was employed to fashion it into garden sculptures.

The Northern Echo: One of many unique Crossley sculptures, made from Commondale clay, in the Tudor Croft gardensOne of many unique Crossley sculptures, made from Commondale clay, in the Tudor Croft gardens

So in the gardens of the Tudor Croft arts and crafts house, there are five acres of gardens featuring bricks, bridges and a beck, sculptures, stones and snowdrops, plus, of course, galanthophiles looking at them.

  • Tudor Croft is open from 11am until 3pm today and tomorrow. It can be found on Stokesley Road, Guisborough, TS14 8DL. Admission is £10, with proceeds going to charities. Tea, coffee, soup and cakes will be available, along with specimen snowdrops.