If you drive along the A149 near Heacham in north-west Norfolk during June and July, remember to wind down your windows as you approach the traffic lights. Not only will you see row upon row, field upon field, of purple lavender, but the fragrance will fill your car and your senses.
You would be forgiven for thinking you’d been transported to the lavender fields of Grasse in France. But here, amid the wheat of East Anglia, is Norfolk Lavender, the UK’s largest commercial lavender grower, with nearly 100 acres under production, and it’s been here since 1932. Lavender growing had almost died out after the First World War, when demand had peaked due to the use of lavender oil in dressings because of its antiseptic properties. Local nurseryman and florist Linn Chilvers had a dream to establish a lavender farm, and in partnership with landowner Francis Dusgate he planted the first six acres with 13,000 plants. In 1936 they bought vintage French stills dating from 1874, and began to distil lavender oil. Those same stills were in use until 2009!
When I visited earlier this week, I was shown how the current still is used to extract the oil from the lavender harvest. Maurice, who has worked at Norfolk Lavender for six years, explained that the 2019 harvest is about a month late because of the wet June.
Maurice talked me through the process. First, the harvested lavender is loaded into the boiler. The whole crop is used – stems as well as flower heads – in order to allow air pockets for the steam to circulate. If only the flower heads are used, it becomes compacted and the steam wouldn’t be able to vaporise the oil.
The steam circulates through the lavender in the boiler, vaporising the oil and rising into the condenser. At this stage, the steam/oil is cooled, turning into a liquid mixture of water and oil. This goes into the separator, where the oil floats on the water, ready to tap off.
One boiler-full (roughly a ‘dumpy bag’ full) can yield between 100 and 700ml of lavender oil, depending on the variety. On that day, Maurice was processing a variety called Maillette, which is high yielding and produces oil which is used in the company’s candle production.
After distillation, the oil has to mature for up to two years – rather like fine wine or cheese! Maurice handed me a sample of the freshly distilled oil to sniff. It has a quite ‘green’ or ‘vegetable’ fragrance, with a suggestion of mown grass, definitely lavender but not the deep, warm fragrance we are used to in lavender essential oil. This depth and complexity develops with maturation.
Maurice told me that they have already sold out of the essential oil from the harvest two years ago. Demand for lavender is increasing, especially amongst younger customers, as a new generation rediscovers the beneficial properties of lavender.
So, what’s so special about lavender? Its use goes back to at least Roman times, when it was used medicinally, in massage, and in worship. In fact, its name (lavandum) is associated with the Latin for ‘washing’, as lavender was used in the hot water of Roman baths.
Lavender was a staple of the medieval ‘physic garden’, where it was grown for its medicinal properties. By the sixteenth century, it was being used as a moth repellent, air freshener and toothpaste (mixed with charcoal – maybe not to the taste of 21st century consumers). It was also believed to help keep the plague at bay, and demand for it was therefore high!
By the nineteenth century, lavender’s appeal was mostly its fragrance, and it was widely used in perfumery. Modern fans, however, also appreciate its reputed properties in reducing stress, inducing calm, and promoting sleep. Lavender is widely used in aromatherapy, and in a wide range of products – many of which are made by Norfolk Lavender.
As part of its commitment to the continuity and heritage of lavender growing in the UK, Norfolk Lavender is also home to a National Collection of lavenders, with over a hundred varieties of lavender, many of which are available to buy in the Plant Centre.
Norfolk Lavender is next to the traffic lights at Heacham. At the heart of the site is Caley Mill, a watermill built in 1837, which ground flour right up to 1923. Most of the building is now offices and stores for Norfolk Lavender, but the old miller’s cottage has been converted into an excellent tea room (The Lavender Lounge). Don’t miss the truly amazing lavender cake (complete with lavender-coloured icing!). And in case you were wondering, no, it doesn’t taste like soap – it’s just fragrant and delicious.
There’s also a large gift shop, which a seasonally changing selection of gifts as well as a large range of lavender-based products, including many of Norfolk Lavender’s own lines. With the adjoining gardens to explore, and with Unique Gifts & Interiors, Walsingham Farm Shop, Farmer Fred’s Adventure Play Barn, and a rare breeds farm sharing the site, there’s something for everyone at Norfolk Lavender. It’s good to see that this company, started from the vision of a local man with a dream, is thriving over 80 years later, providing a high quality visitor attraction and creating new generations of enthusiasts for lavender.
For more details of Norfolk Lavender, take a look at their website.