In the 1970s ITV made a documentary series about an “old” lady, with a shock of white hair, who farmed alone in the Yorkshire Dales. Living a life of frugality and hard labour, she carried haybales on her back, washed in a bucket, and repaired drystone walls. She fetched her bread deliveries, that were left three fields away, drank warm milk in the byre and in freezing blizzards would snuggle up to a cow. Prematurely aged by this hard farming life, Hannah Hauxwell who was only in her 40s, never once seemingly complained. But viewers delighted in her old-fashioned ways and hardy stoicism – after transmission the phonelines were abuzz with offers of money and help. This TV fame changed her fortunes, electricity on the farm in the first instance, and later she moved to a more comfortable home. She died aged on 91, on Wednesday.
Perhaps a fitting tribute to this modest white-haired lady are the appearance of snowdrops this week. These delicate small white flowers heads, with three inner petals and three outer, dangling atop a single vibrant green stem, are surprisingly fragrantly sweet. Latin name, Galanthus Nivus (‘milk flower of the snow’) their dainty white heads stooped, as if in chasteness or humbleness. Like Hannah, they are hardy (a sign of triumph over winter adversity ), resilient (no other flowering bulbs survive frost and snow – the French call them “Perce-Neige”) and as little harbingers of hope (for the spring to come), gladden the heart.
They haven’t always been considered so though. To The Victorians, snowdrops were strongly associated with bad luck. Perhaps they saw their drooping bell-like heads as ‘corpse-like shrouds’ or because the bulbs are poisonous, but they took them seriously – as a foreteller of death. In superstition, they planted them on the graves of loved ones or gave them as bunches in consolation to the bereaved. But the greatest affront, and worst omen of all – was to bring snowdrops into the home – especially a single bloom. (“Encyclopedia of Superstitions, Folklore, and the Occult Sciences of the World” 1903)
Snowdrops have an ancient history, (noted by Greek naturalist Theophrastus, c.250 B.C.) Native to Southern Europe, Monks are thought to have bought them to England in the early sixteenth century to plant around their monasteries. Then they were associated with various winter-ending festivals which then to them becoming part of Christian religious calendar, in particular Candlemas (celebrated today, 2 February) a feast to mark the purification of Mary, forty days after the birth of Jesus. In keeping with past pagan rituals this much more than a dreary service – it was a spectacle of light. Everyone in the parish brought their candles to church to be blessed by the priest (to ward off evil spirits). After the blessing the candles were lit and carried in a procession to the statue of the Virgin Mary, where they were left together with bunches of snowdrops. Light then in these dark days, and warmer times to look forward.
And today we see snowdrops as symbols of hope and of joy to come – See Instragram/snowdrops. And there’s more good news, recent developments in modern medicine have found Galantamine, a naturally occurring substance within the plant, that is being used to help treat the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.
Snowdrops have never been more popular, there are even Galanthophiles, a tribe of avid collectors prepared to spend huge sums for different snowdrop varieties. The rest of us enjoy them in our gardens or feast our eyes in the parklands of great houses (Colesbourne Park near Cheltenham is one of the most celebrated). So if you are out this weekend at on of the many snowdrop walks, all over the country – spare a little prayer for Ms Hauxwell and wish her well. RIP dear Hannah.