British arable farmers looking for alternatives to wheat and barley are growing lavender, and parts of our countryside are now turning a charming shade of purple
British lavender is enjoying a resurgence, by Jane Wheatley
On a midsummer day at Charlie Byrd’s Cotswold Lavender farm, contented visitors wander between the beds in a sensual daze, lulled by fragrance and the hum of 1,000 bees. Thirty-five varieties of lavender cover the gentle, south-facing slope in plump, undulating rows—spires of purple and mauve, pink and cream nodding above slender, silvery-green foliage.
The aromatic plant has enjoyed a recent resurgence in Britain among arable farmers looking for alternatives to wheat and barley. At Broadway in Worcestershire, Charlie farms on quite a scale—some 500,000 plants, totalling more than 100 miles of rows on 90 acres—and sells the distilled oil in bulk, as well as growing plants for gardeners and producing his own range of toiletries and preserves. Last year, more than 25,000 people visited the farm during the plant’s eight-week flowering period.
The single-track road to Nancy Durham’s Welsh Lavender farm winds across a high moorland landscape of bracken, gorse and sheep-cropped turf, dotted here and there with stone houses, their backs turned to the wind whistling up from the valley floor. It’s not an obvious spot to grow a plant that craves hot sun and Nancy—an ebullient Canadian and erstwhile foreign correspondent —would seem an unlikely border-country farmer.
However, in the few years since she planted her three acres of lavender, she has built a thriving business selling hand creams, soaps and lotions based on her essential oil. When Nancy moved to the farm, she missed the ‘magical’ lavender hedge that she’d had at Holywell Manor, the Oxford house that came with her husband’s job at Balliol, and wondered whether she could grow some on her Powys hillside. ‘Local farmers told me “You can grow it, girl, but what are you going to do with it?”’ she recalls. Nancy obtained a diversification grant of £1,000 to plant her crop and, later, a rural development grant to set up a distillery, sending the resulting oil to a neighbour to make up a hand cream. The lavender is harvested in July, with the oil being left to mature in her wine cellar for a year.
One day in January 2012, an invitation arrived asking her to address the Wye Valley Grassland Society. ‘I took some hand cream with me and, to my astonishment, all these hoary farmers were trying it out and telling me their problems, such as chapped skin and split fingers that refused to heal. I thought “I’m going to save farmers’ hands”.’
Nancy’s friend Tyler Brûlé helped design the packaging and the Farmers’ brand was born. The first batch she supplied to Monocle men’s store in Marylebone sold out. Farmers might not have been buying it, Nancy admits, but everyone else was, including former supermodel Helena Christensen, who enthused about its hydrating qualities and delicious scent.
A long way east and a far cry from this boutique enterprise, Doug Worley grows 70 acres of lavender on his Kent fruit farm and, in conjunction with three neighbouring farmers, sells the oil onto the world market. ‘We were all hop growers, but the industry was in decline and we were looking for a replacement. The world was turning Green and we put a lot of money into research before deciding on lavender.’
The project required considerable capital investment in harvesting machinery, trailers and a distillery. ‘It’s not a business to jump in and out of,’ Doug explains. In addition, lavender needs replacing every 10–15 years and, as they planted their first crops in 2000, they’ve recently begun grubbing up and replanting.
‘Weed control is a major problem, too. You can’t spray them all out, so there’s a certain amount of hand work between the rows and we plant through black-plastic strips. We don’t spray the plants, fertilise or water—the important thing is alkaline, free-draining soil.’
The principal varieties the foursome grow are Maillette and Folgate, yielding some 40 litres (nine gallons) of oil per acre: ‘We also grow Grosso—it’s vigorous, with twice the yield, but sells for half as much.’ Has the enterprise been worth the investment? Doug concedes: ‘We’re getting £50 a litre at the moment, £20 for Grosso, but it’s been down to £35 and £15 respectively. However, lavender has recently qualified for the Single Farm Payment, which helps.’
He has no regrets about turning his fields purple. ‘In June and July, you can forget Provence. The bumblebees are incredible—the sight lifts the spirits and I enjoy it enormously.’ Lavender first arrived in Britain with the Romans—its name comes from the Latin lavare, meaning to wash. ‘They brought the oil in bottles,’ explains Dr Simon Charlesworth of Downderry Nursery in Kent. ‘It was pretty rank, but smelled better than a dirty Roman soldier. The plant material didn’t arrive until the 13th century.’ Simon holds a National Collection of lavender, grows more than 400 varieties and exports to 26 countries. In its 19th-century heyday, the South-East was a world centre of lavender production, grown for its decorative, medicinal and culinary uses. ‘There was a slump in the 1960s and 1970s,’ Simon continues. ‘It was thought of as an old ladies’ scent, but, recently, the growth of aromatherapy and all things holistic has seen a resurgence.’
Hampshire grower Richard Norris thinks that lavender has new appeal for the generation of twenty- and thirty-somethings. ‘They don’t have the resistance to lavender as a granny thing,’ he points out. At his plant centre, cafe and shop, customers browse the range of soaps, bags and pillow sprays with its cool, austere labelling: ‘It was a conscious decision to move away from Victorian floral and purple.’ A few miles away over the West Sussex border, at Lordington Lavender, Andrew Elms has stuck to tradition, putting his products into apothecary-style blue-glass bottles. Fed up with losing money in dairy, in 2002, he sold his milking herd and put down four acres of Maillette. ‘At the time, the oil was trading at £78 a litre—rather better than 18p for milk—so I gave it a go,’ he discloses.
He uses the essential oil ‘on every cut and burn—it’s anti-bacterial, anti-fungal and anti-viral and is good for everything from athlete’s foot to migraine. My dog came in with a tick on her head, I dropped lavender oil on and it vanished’. After adding other products to the range, he now sells them at farmer’s markets and on his website.
Has it all been worthwhile? ‘Lavender is a contribution in a world of fluctuating prices,’ he shrugs. ‘It does a lot for conservation, so I qualified for the countryside stewardship scheme: we have hummingbird hawk moths, butterflies, goldfinches, barn owls, hares and bees, with 12 red-listed species in all, which is what I do it for, really.’
The best places to see lavender in Britain
Cotswold Lavender, Broadway, Worcestershire (www.cotswoldlavender. co.uk)
Welsh Lavender, Builth Wells, Powys (www.welshlavender.com)
Downderry Nursery, Tonbridge, Kent (www.downderry-nursery.co.uk)
Long Barn Lavender Growers, Alresford, Hampshire (www.longbarn.co.uk)
Lordington Lavender, Chichester, West Sussex (www.lordingtonlavender. co.uk)
Mayfield Lavender, Banstead, Surrey (www.mayfieldlavender.com)
Carshalton lavender fields, Surrey—a community project, which opens for ‘pick your own’ on July 30–31(www.carshaltonlavender.org)
Norfolk Lavender, Heacham, Norfolk (www.norfolk-lavender.co.uk)
Isle of Wight Lavender, near Newport, has more than 230 cultivars (01983 825272)
Yorkshire Lavender, Terrington, York,North Yorkshire (www.yorkshirelavender.com)