Surprises – A Local History of Lavender

I’m hoping for sunshine this year. Sunshine is integral to lavender – apparently the more sunshine it gets, the fuller the scent. Blissful.

You see, having been inspired and somewhat egged on by my almost-mother-in-law Helen (check out her blog here at Downland Views), I’ve been getting more and more into lavender recently. Partly because there are areas of my Smallest Smallholding where the soil is, quite frankly, crap and partly because it’s just a simple amazing little plant. It’s wonderfully fragrant, the bees and butterflies adore it, it’s easy to grow and it has an abundance of uses – from treating insect bites, scenting the house and relaxing the mind to a whole host of culinary uses.

In fact, my recent upsurge of interest in lavender has unearthed a few intriguing snippets of information that I was previously unaware of.  I was already wise to the Kentish connection with lavender, as I have visited Castle Farm, which isn’t too far from Helen.  But interestingly, it seems that Helen isn’t the only one with a local connection to lavender.

It transpires that the very area of Bedfordshire that I have lived in all my life – currently home to countless fields of cereals, rape seed oil and brassicas – was once home to its very own lavender fields. I’m guessing that this is largely due to the fact that the Greensand Ridge meanders through the area, providing perfect growing conditions for drought-tolerant plants such as lavender. Likewise, the nearby town and surrounding area of Hitchin, just over the border in Hertfordshire, was once an important centre for lavender production in Britain too.  I’ve even located a local chemist in Ampthill who, as stated in the 1890 ‘Kelly’s Directory of Bedfordshire’, was ‘manufacturing medicinal herbs and lavender’.

So what happened? Where did it all go? Why am I not enjoying the sight of fields of vivid purple as I trundle through the local countryside? It seems that the lavender industry in Britain fell into decline during the latter part of the 19th century, perhaps for two reasons. Firstly,  the once-popular lavender water fell out of favour as eau du colognes became en vogue. During the early 20th century, cheaper imports (that old chesnut!) from France also had a significant impact on local production.  The final nail in the coffin may well have been a widespread outbreak of a fungal disease amongst native plant populations.

But my digging (in the researching sense) has paid its dues. It seems all is not lost. Cadwell Farm, home to ‘Hitchin Lavender‘ in Ickleford, has now earned itself a place on my ‘must see’ list of places to visit this year. The farm owners decided to revitalise their business by diversifying into the once-popular local crop. They felt that lavender in particular would put something back into the local community. And it does – sweeping fields of purple in summer, the opportunity to PYO for a minimal fee,  a busy farm shop stocking lavender products, and guided walks and tours through the fields.

And of course, there’s the local wildlife population who are benefiting from this enterprise. The bees – oh the bees! They must be pretty content with their lot over at Ickleford.

So to get myself started, I’ve just put a few plants in. Although there are so many varieties of lavender that I need to explore, I’ve started with a view to keeping it simple for now – Lavandula Augustifolia (English Lavender) and a shrub variety Hidcote (lavandula augustifolia Hidcote), for the borders.

Although my primary motivation for planting is the colour, the scent and the benefits for the bees and butterflies, I’m also planning on exploring the culinary uses of lavender this year. So I shall report my findings (in a much more succinct way than this beast of a blog post) as and when I discover them! And I just hope that this year, the skies are blue and the sun comes out to shine.

Weight: 11 stones 1lb (grrrr!)