The secret of Surrey lavender
PUBLISHED: 11:01 06 June 2012 | UPDATED: 11:01 19 January 2016
Rows of hazy blue lavender stretch into the distance filling the air with its wonderful fragrance. Contrary to appearances, however, this isn't Provence - this is right here in suburban Surrey and the harvest is about to begin. JANET DONIN gets to the root of our county's horticultural heritage
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine July 2008
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It may be hard to believe today, but up until a hundred years ago, a vast swathe of Surrey was covered with miles and miles of gorgeous lavender. In fact, this aromatic herb was the main produce for the North Downs area where the chalky soil and mild weather proved the perfect conditions in which to grow this small evergreen shrub.
Companies such as Yardley and Potter & Moore founded their reputation on Surrey's lavender, and for a time during the early 19th century, the lavender fields of Wallington, Carshalton, Croydon, Mitcham and Banstead were suppliers to the world. Ladies loved the perfume as well as the healing properties of the oil. They also placed bags of fresh lavender among their linen, to keep away the moths, and used it to flavour jam, honey and custard.
Sadly, as cheaper French lavender flooded the market and suburbia sprawled, the blue fields gave way to homes in roads called Lavender Walk, Lavender Sweep and Lavender Gardens. Today, just two lavender growing areas survive - and they're now in full and glorious bloom.
Right in the heart of the area that was once the lavender capital of the world, Carshalton Lavender is an oasis of perfectly rounded, sweet smelling bushes, set among cabbages and onions, lettuces and beans - for it is here at the Stanley Road allotments that this little gem of an industry has once again become a viable concern.
Over the years, its chequered history has seen the land change from flourishing fields into much valued allotments after the war only to degenerate into little more than a rubbish dump. Some 12 years ago, however, the environmental charity BioRegional Development Group collaborated with a number of volunteers and inmates of HMP Downview prison to re-establish the once thriving industry.
"It was all part of a programme to regenerate old local industries," explains Roger Webb, a former trustee of BioRegional. "At the time, we chose the lavender project because of its link to the area. In doing so, we wanted to embrace the whole community and as Downview had an up-and-running horticultural programme it was ideal to get them involved, too."
Cuttings of traditional lavender varieties were collected from people living in the area then grown in the ambitious horticulture project within the prison. When the plants matured, prisoners on day release helped the BioRegional staff to clear and plant up three acres of the disused allotments.
"We had the first 'community harvest' in 2000," says Roger. "People were invited to pick their own lavender and the rest of the crop was made into 'local lavender' essential oil, which we sold through BioRegional and local shops."
The project proved such a success that three years ago it was decided to hand over the fields to be managed by local volunteers, under the name of Carshalton Lavender, and they continue to run it today.
A growing concern
A little further down the road, fanning out over some 25 acres of scented heaven is Mayfield Lavender - the largest organic lavender farm in the UK. Looking over the hawthorn and cowslip hedge, the endless rows of purple mounds can be seen reaching into the distance. Close to the entrance are the early blooming English lavender varieties of Folgate and Maillette; beyond is the French hybrid variety called Grosso that blooms a little later.
Mayfield is a dream come true for Brendan Maye, who a few years ago, as the UK managing director of Wella's fragrance division (including the famous Yardley brand), had the brainwave to revive the historic lavender growing industry in this part of Surrey. With that in mind, he sponsored the planting in the field opposite Oaks Park. As the project developed, it needed full-time care, which was when Brendan's wife Lorna took over the day-to-day management.
"At first, I was slow to recognise the special appeal of lavender growing, thinking it was just a romantic idea of Brendan's," admits Lorna. "But when I got more interested, I realised how important organic farming is and how much demand there is for oil distilled from locally grown organic lavender. I must admit, too, that the birth of my daughters accelerated my interest in all things organic."
Little did Lorna realise, however, just how much she would become involved. "As we don't use chemical pesticides or fertiliser to manage our crop, organic farming can be a real challenge, especially when it comes to weed management," she says. Throughout the growing season, the fields are hand-weeded, which is not a job for the faint-hearted. "We also mow between the rows every three weeks - about 50 miles in total," she says. "Now that is a relaxing job, especially on a bright summer's day!"
Weeding at Carshalton Lavender is also a big job, which is why this year they introduced their ingenious 'Adopt-a-row' scheme. For £20, anyone can take over the management of a row of lavender. The commitment involves pulling up the persistent couch grass and bindweed during the growing season from April until mid-July, which will probably take two people about a day to complete. The satisfaction is having your name displayed at the end of the row and getting a free bucket of lavender for each of your rows at harvest time.
Harvesting in Carshalton begins in the second week of July and is usually a very festive occasion. The majority of the lavender is harvested by machine then sent to the distillers, and the resultant oil sold to local companies to be used in toiletries and beauty products. However, everyone is welcome to join in the fun of cutting and collecting lavender for themselves.
Among the attractions, a barbecue is provided to fortify the hungry gatherers and lavender produce will also be on sale - including plants, oil, toiletries and heat packs, not to mention delicious lavender cookies. An oil distillation is also demonstrated and the aromatherapy hand and foot massages are not to be missed.
Artist and photographer Tessa Spanton will be there, too, selling her attractive paintings of the lavender field, which she has interpreted from every angle. "I love to sit with my watercolours surrounded by the lavender fragrance and get lost in the beauty of the scene," she says.
Down at Mayfield, the fields attract loads of visitors who can buy freshly cut lavender from early June throughout the season until the end of July. "We get people coming year after year," says Lorna. "It's such a fantastic atmosphere and everyone goes home feeling so much better after inhaling the lavender fragrance."
Some of the hand-cut lavender is also dried to be used in scented bags or locally-made cookies and fudge, but the bulk of the harvesting is undertaken by a special machine that clips the lavender heads ready to be sent to the distillers. The oil is then bottled and labelled by hand ready for sale. Until recently, Lorna says the business was "too big to be a hobby but too small to be a wow commercially". Now, however, she has been bitten by the lavender bug and is planning ways to make her business grow and grow.
As residents of Surrey, we have the ideal conditions for growing lavender. The soil is chalky and free draining and, providing the lavender is planted in a sunny position, it's the perfect plant for edging paths or creating a low hedge.
At Spring Reach Nursery in Ockham, they sell a wide range of lavender-related products, and joint owner Nick Hourhan says they always prove extremely popular with customers. When it comes to growing lavender in your own garden, he has this advice.
"English lavender is best for our gardens," he says, "especially varieties such as Lavendula angustifolia Hidcote, which has dark blue flowers and grey/green foliage, or Munstead with its bluish/purple flowers and named after Gertrude Jekyll's garden at Munstead Wood."
At Petersham Nurseries near Richmond, which is also a big seller of lavender, plant buyer Laura Ashford agrees.
"Hidcote lavender is certainly the most popular and fragrant of all the English lavenders," she says. "But the French variety Stoechas, with its pinkish/purple flowers shaped like extravagant ears, looks especially pretty in cottage borders."
So, whether you enjoy the fun of harvesting, want to grow it in your garden or would simply like to buy some, now is the time to get to know the many varieties of lavender that are so much a part of Surrey's horticultural heritage.
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The many uses of lavender oil
- Add five to ten drops to a warm bath, then lie back and unwind
- To clear sinuses add five drops to a steaming bowl of water, place a towel over your head and inhale
- Put a few drops onto a handkerchief and place into your pillowcase for a good night's sleep
- Dab cotton wool soaked with one or two drops to ease bee or nettle stings
- Add a few drops to a bowl of warm water to revive tired feet
- Drizzle several drops onto dried flowers or pot pourri for room fragrance
Getting in touch with Surrey lavender
- Carshalton Lavender, Stanley Road Allotments, Oaks Way, Carshalton, Surrey SM5 4NQ Tel: 07948 174907
- Mayfield Lavender, Croydon Lane, Banstead, Surrey Tel: 07775 800133
- Spring Reach Nursery, Long Reach, Ockham, Surrey GU23 6PG Tel: 01483 284769
- Petersham Nurseries, Church Lane, off Petersham Road, Petersham, near, Richmond, Surrey TW10 7AG Tel: 020 8940 5230