Welsh lavender? It sounds as unpromising as Provencal leeks. But last summer, while driving through the beautiful Wye valley, I spotted, on the other side of the river, a steeply sloped field in which was growing an unfamiliar purple crop. It wasn’t blue enough for flax. So what on earth could it be?
After winding up the other side of the valley past a few solitary homesteads I came across a wooden sign with the words Welsh Lavender Farm. This was one of those glorious moments where you follow your nose (literally) and discover something really wonderful: a small farm growing three acres of French lavender and distilling its own oil to produce handmade creams and the most delicious lavender flavoured chocolate.
It turned out that the farm was the brainchild of Nancy Durham, a former Canadian news reporter who had retired here, with her husband Bill, a professor of philosophy at Oxford University.
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A change of career
Nancy, now 63, had covered the break up of the Balkans and travelled the former Soviet bloc for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Like the late Sue Lloyd Roberts, Nancy’s mentor and hero, she had been one of the first video journalists. Nancy was tiny and packed full of energy, just the person to jump on an idea and then, despite all odds, make it work.
A year after she planted her first lavender, (of which more shortly), she was, as she put it, “covering some unpleasantness” in Iraq. “I remember thinking the lavender had been in the ground for almost a year and thinking how much I’d rather be in a lavender field than in Iraq.”
These days she is rarely far from a bunch of fresh or dried lavender and, after a slow start, is now making a profit from her unlikely business.
The idea for the farm grew out of a random conversation with her neighbours. “I was saying how I wanted to grow a lavender hedge,” and as the discussion expanded her friend mentioned an organization that was trying to encourage Welsh farmers to diversify. Nancy might, she suggested, qualify for a grant to grow lavender.
But Nancy wasn’t a gardener. “Not at all. At most I had put a geranium in a pot. I had no knack and no passion.”
Undeterred, Nancy did her research. As long as the roots didn’t sit in water, local growers told her, the lavender should be fine. “So the sloping hill was ideal.” She got her start-up grant from Glasu and in 2003 the first plants went in.
The whole family helped to plant 2,000 plugs sourced from Norfolk Lavender. “Even so,” Nancy recalls, “it was very hard work.” She suffered carpal tunnel problems because the ground was so hard and, as she says, “we made lots of mistakes.” (Not using weed suppressing membrane, not leaving enough space between rows and so on.)
“Once the plants were in the ground there was nothing to do but watch it grow,” says Nancy.
Which isn’t strictly what Nancy did. Ever the journalist, she was out taking notes on her clipboard; marking up the rows, numbering the plants, and working out which were happy and which not. “It was an experiment,” she says firmly.
Yet, apart from two awful winters when the ground stayed close to freezing for several weeks and quite a few plants died, the lavender has thrived. And, after years of working at it, so has the business.
The road to success
That first harvest Nancy was amazed by how much her few acres produced. “Just tons and tons. We had bunches hanging all over the house and the barn.”
But she had no plan for what to do with the flowers other than take them to local shops and markets – and a few people rang up wanting some for weddings. “Maybe I sold £800 worth but I’d paid more than that getting people to help with the picking,” which they do the hard way, with hand scythes.
“I had no idea of becoming Wales in Provence, or anything like that.”
Then one day Hilary Lowe of Damsonandslate.co.uk, a website devoted to all things beautiful and Welsh, rang up out of the blue wanting to visit. To cut a long story short Hilary asked why they weren’t making anything with the lavender. “It turned out her sister Helen, who lived in North Wales, specialised in making hand creams. If we could distill some oil, she said, she could put us in touch with Helen.
Nancy found a man in the next valley who put together a prototype still using a couple of urns and a mesh basket. “We produced little more than a thimbleful that first go.” But it was enough for Helen to produce a range of creams for women.
They called the range Ruby (after the red soil) Lefant (welsh for lavender) and dreamed of success. But the creams, though lovely, didn’t take off. “It was kind of tragic,” says Nancy who did her best selling online and in local towns. Bill, who had been drafted in as the company accountant, was grim-faced. “Only I could have turned an Oxford philosophy don into an accountant!”
Nancy stuck with the lavender. The breakthrough came from a chance invitation to give a talk on the farm to a group of ruddy faced local farmers at the Wye Valley Grassland Society. Nancy was very nervous and, as it was ladies night, brought a tray of creams to hand around. To her amazement it was the men who raved about the creams and what it was doing for their chapped skin. “It was the most amazing night. They were so appreciative and on the way home I had this idea for the name “Farmers’”.” She Googled it the moment she got in. “There was nothing. That was when I thought, ‘this could be a brand’.”
Nancy decided on a simple aluminium pot with a photograph of a tractor on the lid. An old Canadian friend, Tyler Brule, who had long ago launched Monocle magazine and has a wonderful eye for what works, recommended an illustration instead of a photo and a label on the side too. “So that you could see what it was when the pots were stacked.” She took his advice and brought 90 pots to the Monocole Summer Fair in 2012. It was her salvation. “We sold out! Male, female, old, young, gay straight. Everyone loves tractors!”
She also thinks the brand chimed with the times. “People like to know about provenance and there was this growing interest in farmers and farming.”
Sales began to take off online and, with a sign up and word of mouth reports, visitors were turning up at the gate to see the lavender and visit the busy little shop. An American friend also pushed her into seeing the buyer at the very cool Ace Hotels, which she now supplies. And, for the first time ever, she has turned a profit. “Which makes Bill very happy.”
“It’s been very hard work,” says Nancy who, with further grants from the Welsh government, has been able to buy a still and a filler – the machine that fills the pots with the cream which is still made by Helen. It has also enabled her to provide a full time apprenticeship. “And not before time. I was working round the clock. It was exhausting.” Next, she says, she hopes to be able to pay herself a salary. “I do think I deserve one.”
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