HOLLAND in the spring means tulips to most people: huge floral patchwork quilts of countless colors spread across the low-lying land. This holds true whether ``Holland'' means the Netherlands, a town in Michigan - or a subcounty in England.
England's ``Holland'' is the southern part of the East Midlands county of Lincolnshire. It borders the North Sea directly across from the country Holland.
The English and the Dutch Hollands share many characteristics: land often below sea level; canals to drain the excess water; high, wide, handsomely cloud-dotted skies over flat fields that carry the eye to the far horizon where a church steeple can just be discerned.
They also share an avid interest in tulips and other bulbs, both for their beauty and as a business.
At the center of the roughly 30-mile-wide area of the British bulb industry is Spalding, a Georgian market town situated on the banks of the River Welland near The Wash.
In the district, 7,000 acres - 3,000 for tulips and 4,000 for daffodils - are devoted to bulb raising. The area exports bulbs around the world, even to the Dutch!
In April through early May, England's Holland is a splendid splash of color - from the sunshine yellow of millions of daffodils to the brilliant blaze of red tulips. Tulips produce a multicolored carpet of vivid vegetation rolled out on the English countryside.
Normally, daffodils are in bloom in early April. The bulb-field displays represent quite a different way of enjoying them from seeing them in London's St. James's Park or in the Lake District, where they grow wild. Tulips are generally in bloom for the last two weeks in April and the first part of May. The pretty panorama of the bulb fields changes colors several times in that period, as first ``early'' and then ``late'' tulips flower.
Routes through the intensively cultivated flat fens area, where the largest bulb fields are found, are marked by Rural Rides signposts. These enable visitors to find their way around the area easily by car. It's wise to avoid weekends if you can, so as to have a more leisurely exploration. Being so flat, the area is also delightful to discover by bicycle.
The Information Center (Ayscoughfee Hall, Churchgate, Spalding, Lincolnshire, England; tel.: Spalding 5468) will provide full tourist information, including exactly what stage the blooming is in and the best fields in bloom on a certain day.
It takes two to three years to produce a bulb that has grown to a mature size and is ready to sell. In each of the bulb's immature seasons, the flower head must be nipped off by hand as soon as it reaches full bloom, before any petals fall to the ground. With the flower head removed, the bulb begins to absorb the stem as food, turning it into energy for future flowering power.
Visitors to the area will see piles of nipped flower heads making colorful spots in the ditches around the fields. Not all the blooms face such an ignominious end, however.
Millions are ``recycled'' in one of the most colorful of England's many pageants. The Spalding Tulip Parade is a more than mile-long spectacle that travels a four-mile route and is the climax of the flowering season.
Each year, floats are specially designed. Then, over a steel framework and straw matting, the flowers are attached. Nearly 100 tulip heads per square foot are required for the silken-textured, vibrantly colored creations, some of which need 100,000 blooms. Decorating the floats can take up to 24 hours. It's done by relays of workers so that the 6 million flowers used remain fresh for the occasion. Marching bands, festively decked out, accompany the floats.
As many as a quarter of a million people - British Rail puts on plenty of extra train coaches from London - attend the Spalding Tulip Parade, to be held this year on Saturday, May 7. The parade route itself is decorated by local authorities. Many of the residents along it create flower-petal mosaics in their front gardens.
At the end of the Tulip Parade route is Springfields, the ultimate garden in a country noted for its outstanding horticulture. Situated on 25 acres, Springfields provides a spectacle of daffodils, hyacinths, tulips, and other bulbs along four miles of paths that lead visitors through woodlands and formal displays, and to greenhouses where they can see even more of the hundreds of varieties of tulips. Admission is about $4.50 to the garden, which opens each year on April 4 and remains open through September, with roses as its main attraction in the summer months.
After the Flower Parade is over, the floats are kept on display in Spalding for three days. On those days, a shuttle bus is operated between the town and Springfields, 1 miles away. During the display, colorful marquees are set up, at which is sold a variety of food. There are also local produce stalls - and a tea tent.
For a five- to six-day period during the parade and float display, the town of Spalding and the surrounding villages welcome visitors to their floral festivals. Thanksgiving services are held in local churches, several of which date back to the 12th and 13th centuries, and all of which are beautifully decorated for the occasion with flowers. Special activities include teas and luncheons served to the public in many of the towns.
Spalding, tracing its history back before William the Conqueror arrived, is a delightful market town, with several inns and guesthouses offering accommodations. Many of the charming pubs, with such names as The Birds, Pied Calf, Ship Inn, Lincoln Arms, serve reasonably priced hot meals and hot and cold snacks.
The town's market days are Tuesday and Saturday. Surrounding towns of historical and architectural appeal, and green English countryside beauty, are many. They include Boston - accessible by bus - 15 miles to the northeast, where some of the Pilgrims who settled Plymouth, Mass., were once imprisoned. It features its landmark Boston Stump steeple, Sutton Bridge, Wisbech, King's Lynn, and Grantham.
Robert Browning had it right when he wrote:
``Oh, to be in England now that April's there'' - and now that its bulb fields are in bloom.