This week I have been mostly – researching

I was recently commissioned by a literary webzine to write a piece on Strata Florida Abbey in West Wales.  This was one of a number of possible ideas I had pitched to the editor, but I must admit I was thrilled that this was the one they wanted, as it’s a place that’s very dear to my heart.

West doorway of Strata Florida Abbey. Mono photograph.

When I was 17 (a very long time ago), I was at school in North Wales and doing an innovative A level English course which included a large element of creative writing – this was very cutting edge in the 1980s!  My group – there were just 5 of us doing the course – was taken on a number of field trips to provide inspiration for our writing, and one of these was to Cymer Abbey, near Dolgellau.  Cymer was a small Cistercian abbey (the Cistercians were the ‘back to basics’ order of monks which emerged out of the Benedictine tradition at the end of the 11th century.  They were into simplicity, austerity and self-sufficiency).  Cymer was founded in 1198 and dissolved by Henry VIII in 1536.  We spent a couple of hours there, taking in the peaceful location between the hills and the Mawddach river, beside a small farm, in the spring sunshine.  We learned about the silver gilt chalice and paten (vessels used in the Mass) which had been discovered in the 19th century, treasure which was believed to have been hidden by the monks to keep it safe from the king’s men when they came to close and ransack the monastery.  This is the poem I wrote:

Cymer Abbey

The ruins lie like a cracked skull,
empty arches like toothless jaws:
bare homes of stolen treasure.
Each stone is a tombstone for a soul
through the processions of the past.
Chants sound in the vacant roof,
scents of incense in the mists of history.
The pale, thin, golden light of dawn
upon the parchment walls –
the candlelight of centuries.

OK, it’s a bit ‘A level creative writing course’, but I can kind of see why I ended up a writer, and especially a writer who loves writing about place.

My next brush with the Cistercians was a couple of years later – I was at university in West Wales, and every October a group of students would go to Strata Florida Abbey to hold a service in the remains of the abbey church.  In practice, this usually meant a service in the little Georgian parish church next door, as the weather in late autumn in Wales was rarely conducive to outdoor services in the ruins!  The video of that first visit still plays in my head – the little coach winding past the vastness of Tregaron Bog (Cors Caron), the village of Pontrhydfendigaid and the sudden right turn into an insignificant residential lane.  The lane continuing out into the countryside and then, round a corner, the first sight of the abbey ruins – in particular, the iconic west doorway.  At that point, I hadn’t read about the abbey or seen pictures of it, so I had no idea what to expect, except that the people who’d been before said it was rather special.  They weren’t wrong.

Mono photograph of detail of finial on west doorway, Strata Florida Abbey.

The abbey nestles between the foothills of the Cambrian Mountains and the River Teifi.  Even with the later house built over part of the cloister, the farmyard next door, and the parish church and extensive churchyard beside it, Strata Florida has the peace and beauty characteristic of Cistercian sites, chosen as they were for their remoteness from ‘the dwellings of men’.  The west doorway is unique in its architectural style, the spiral triscele finials a nod to the Celtic culture of the generations of Welsh princes and bards who were buried here.  I decided that I would love to be buried here, too.

In the years that passed, I visited Strata Florida whenever I could (easier once I was a grown up with a car!), and a few other abbeys too.  In my 30s, I went back to university part time for a Masters degree, and two of the modules available were on the Cistercians, because a professor in the history department just happened to be one of the world’s leading experts on the Cistercians.  Inevitably, perhaps, I ended up doing my dissertation on the Cistercians, with the title Living Water: a study of Cistercian water management in the context of twelfth and early thirteenth century monastic water systems, with particular reference to selected Cistercian sites in England and Wales (including, of course, Strata Florida!).  I have explored the latrines, drains, troughs and water pipes of almost every Cistercian monastery in England and Wales where there are any ruins remaining.  I have even infected my partner, who is, as I write this, wrangling an essay for a module on the Cistercians for her Masters degree.

Mono photograph of detail of west doorway, Strata Florida Abbey

You would think, then, that I wouldn’t have to do any research for the article I’ve been commissioned to write.  But, frankly, any excuse to get the books out again!  And fact-checking (dates etc) is important.  Also, scholarship does move on.  There have been a number of archaeological digs and research projects since I last wrote about Strata Florida, and Cadw (the Welsh government’s heritage agency, who owns and cares for the site) now has a visitor centre and facilities, as well as an excellent web page.  My most recent visit was in late 2019, and I was able to take some photographs, to accompany the article and this post.

When the article is published, I’ll post a link to the webzine.  Meanwhile, if you don’t already follow this blog, and would like to have future posts drop into your inbox, why not follow TheThreeHaresBlog by email?  I post on average about once a week.  Thanks!

Colour photograph of books about Cistercians, and a notebook.

Norfolk Lavender – where farming meets fragrance

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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.