Tue, 06 Feb 2018
Welford Park, near Newbury, has again opened its huge wrought iron gates and thousands of visitors are expected during the beginning of 2018, eager to see the famous carpets of stunning white snowdrops scattered over the six-acre park.
There are believed to be 10 million wild snowdrops and about 30 varieties and it is thought to be the biggest mass of snowdrops anywhere in Britain.
Last year 17,000 visitors came through the gates, so ever since September preparations have been under way to get the estate shipshape – paths have to be prepared, weeds killed, low branches cut back and snowdrop areas strimmed.
The house and gardens are set in the beautiful Lambourn valley, a chalk stream weaves through seven acres of beech woods and gardens and over the years many rare trees, magnolia and tulip trees have been planted.
This historic house was built on the site of a Norman Benedictine monastery, where snowdrops were cultivated to decorate the church for Candlemas.
Snowdrops were grown for their medicinal properties, as the monks are believed to have rubbed the crushed bulbs into their temples to alleviate headaches.
Today scientists have extracted galantamine, naturally found in snowdrops, that appears to stimulate the regeneration of nerve cells and helps slow the development of Alzheimer’s disease.
Henry VIII destroyed the monastery at Welford in the Dissolution and replaced it with a deer hunting lodge for himself. This was built onto in 1618 and completed in 1702, making the present house of the Queen Anne period.
The current incumbent, James Puxley, inherited Welford Park and is Lord Lieutenant of Berkshire, the Queen’s representative in the county.
His wife Deborah, a former jewellery designer, now finds herself wearing several hats and juggling various jobs throughout the year. She also plays an important supporting role for her husband at ceremonial functions – otherwise, she says, she would never see him.
Deborah adds: “There are four main things in my life for 2018 – the ongoing upkeep of getting the house up to scratch, which is a fairly full-time job because it is so old and we are preparing to hand the house over in 10 years time in a fit state to the younger generation.
“I run the snowdrop business and filming schedules and ensure that the Welford Estate business runs smoothly.
“On top of which, I have 20 sheep, five chickens and 10 chicks, five call-ducks, five belted Galloway cows, three sows, and about 20 piglets, two dogs and a cat to look after.”
Deborah also designs the linen on sale in the shop, and still finds time to be chairman of Macmillan Cancer Support, Berkshire and a governor of Welford and Wickham Primary School.
The Welford Estate came into the Puxley family in 1618, which, Deborah says, “is the only time it has ever changed hands for money”.
It is the 400-year anniversary in 2018, so Deborah’s top priority is also to organise a large, private celebration for family and staff this summer.
On the grey winter day that I meet Deborah she tells me that every year, from September 1 onwards, Welford Park is a hive of culinary activity – preparing meals for eager galanthophiles (lovers of snowdrops).
There is a team making soup and mixing cakes, while Deborah and Sophie Waterston, the estate manager’s wife, churn out chutney and more cakes in preparation for the ravenous ramblers in the snowdrop season.
In previous Mays, Welford Park has had to prepare for an invasion of a different sort.
It has been the location for The Great British Bake Off and the famous bunting-clad, white marquee, which gets erected on Welford’s lawn and become home to the famous ‘Show Stoppers’, ‘Technical Challenges’ and ‘soggy bottoms’!
Before the Bake Off team arrive, Deborah says “we have worked very hard on the lawns and gardens and checked for hazards”.
“It’s all peace and quiet one day, the next huge pantechnicon lorries arrive,” she adds. “It’s like a military operation, tracking goes down on the lawns and small tractors erect the enormous tent in just one day. The following day all the lighting, electricity and floor goes in.
“On day three the kitchens are built, the ovens wired in and the sinks fitted with hot and cold water. Then we’re ready to go.”
The grounds were bustling with runners, technicians, presenters, contestants and crew.
Deborah worked very closely with the art director, arranging the flowers for the marquee and planting up the now-familiar steps.
Last year, she was thrilled to be chosen as a baker in the dress rehearsal for the judges.
“So I know the pressure the competitors are under, not only having to produce something that is delicious, but to be cross-examined by any one of four celebrities in front of 10 cameras,” she says.
“I had absolutely no idea what was under the red and white tablecloth and I’m very thrilled to say that my technical challenge got a Hollywood handshake.
“I made a Victoria sponge and we had to also make the jam and buttercream.
“It was run on strict Bake Off rules and I’m delighted to say that last year I was Star Baker – but the other three were crew and I make hundreds of scones and cakes for the Tea Rooms, so I’m not sure it was awfully fair.”
Deborah says the new Bake Off with Channel 4 is a breath of fresh air.
“Of course we missed Mary, Mel and Sue terribly, but the new team bonded quickly and felt honoured to be part of this iconic show,” she adds.
“I think it’s been beyond everyone’s wildest dreams that so many people watched it.”
One of the winners of a previous Bake Off was Nadiya Hussain, who was commissioned to bake a cake for the Queen’s 90th birthday in 2016.
The year was also a highlight for the Puxleys, as in his role as Lord Lieutenant, James and Deborah were present at Windsor for the three-day celebrations.
On the Queen’s actual birthday Deborah says they arrived at their hotel in Windsor with two uniforms for James and three day suits, three evening outfits and hats for herself. The hotel took one look at them and decided they needed a bigger room.
“When I saw the barriers on Windsor High Street it only dawned on me how big an occasion it was,” she adds.
“On the first morning James set off early. I had to get myself to Victoria Park to be the first to be presented when the Queen arrived.
“It was very special. I was with the High Sheriff and his wife. I was also presented to the Duke of Edinburgh and walked with him as he talked to the school children and then onto a dais for the school performance.
“I sat behind the Duke, James sat behind the Queen. The most memorable thing was that the children stood to sing the national anthem and the Queen was absolutely thrilled.”
As a famous TV star, Welford Park is now in demand as a location for shoots and appeared in the recent Christmas edition of Harpers Bazaar magazine. Deborah was the location manager and was helped by the estate manager’s 14-year-old daughter, Fleur.
Every other year, in July, the house is transformed into a backdrop for a community-theatre, open-air musical romp by the Boxford Masques.
A stage is built in front of the house with full lighting rigs and there is a cast of about 50, aged from five to an octogenarian.
Last summer the house became an ocean liner in All At Sea, with the audience as passengers, many of whom brought picnics for the interval.
“As the theatre crew were setting up, the television crew for Bake Off were leaving, which all worked like clockwork,” Deborah explains.
And when September comes round this year it will be time, once again, to get beating and baking for the next Snowdrop season in 2019.