Castle Farm’s lavender harvest: our fragrant field trip

Lavender is having a moment in fragrance right now – according to a repot by the NPD group, sales of prestige lavender beauty products in the U.K. have increased by a staggering 552% from January 2019 to the end of April 2019. So you might have previously dismissed it as ‘grandma’s scent’, but get ready to leave your lavender preconceptions at the door…

When you think of a purple swathe of lavender being harvested for the perfume industry, your mind possibly strays to the fields of Provence. But did you know we have our own beautiful lavender farms right on our doorstop in the U.K?

We paid a visit with the British Essential Oil Association on a field trip to Castle Farm in Sevenoaks, Kent, to see the lavender harvest in action and – most excitingly – to see their very own distillery, and watch those tiny flowers be turned into the most lusciously fragrant essential oil: from field to bottle, in front of our very eyes (and noses)…

Starting our day with a glass of apple juice from the farm and a lavender shortbread biscuit, we ignored the gathering clouds and headed out to the fields to learn about the differing types of lavender they grow there, and how the oils from them are used.

The Alexander Family have been farming in the Darent Valley since 1892, when the enterprising James Alexander apparently brought down 17 milking cows on the train from Ayrshire in Scotland. Today, the farm is managed by William and Caroline Alexander, with involvement from each of their children, Lorna, Thomas and Crispin, and supported by the hard-working Castle Farm team.

The lavender farm was established in 1985, when William and Caroline went to market – Covent Garden as it happens – selling dried hops. By 1990, The Hop Shop (as Castle Farm is also known) was a major producer of dried flowers, growing over 70 different flowers and won many awards, including 5 consecutive Gold Medals at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show. Now the farm is a sprawling 1,100 acres, with crops of wheat, barley, rapeseed, hops, apples, pumpkins and a grass-fed herd of beef cattle. And, of course, the magnificent fields of lavender – the largest lavender farm in the U.K.

In the distillery, they had the ingenious idea of using the trucks that harvest the lavender to directly distill the essential oil from – time is of the literally essence for the highest quality yield – and so they put a lid on top of the container, in which 7 tonnes of lavender are heated to 100° in just ten minutes. From there, a huge pipe is attached to catch the and filter the steam to the tanks in a large barn.

As we stood with steam wafting around our ankles, the smell became almost overpowering – it felt like the lavender fields had been turned into a sauna, with misty swirls of mineralic steam mixing with the scent of drying hay and engine oil. A bit like being on a steam train in a dream. A truly surreal and unforgettable experience. And then, of course, we got to smell the oils themselves…

Premium Lavender Oil: An elite single origin oil – luxuriously delicate with exceptional fragrance notes for aromatherapy. Intensely pure. ‘This oil is extracted solely from our Maillette Lavender plants – and taken in the first 20 minutes of distillation only – making it the finest and most delicate of our lavender fragrances.’ With all the characteristics of a ‘high altitude Lavender Oil’ (which, we learned, has nothing whatever to do with the altitude a lavender’s grown at, and everything to do with the type of lavender and how long it’s distilled for!)

Kentish Lavender Oil: A high-grade, honeyed, gentle Lavender essential oil with antiseptic, anti-inflammatory, antibacterial and mild anesthetic properties. This oil is made from their Lavandula Angustifolia, grown and distilled on Castle Farm. Widely used in aromatherapy, perfumery and medicine, the pure oil is safe for use directly on the skin.

Kentish Lavandin Oil: Lavandula x intermedia is extracted from Castle Farm’s Grosso plant variety and has a strong, cleansing and refreshing scent with elements of camphor. Often used for room fragrancing, candles, as a moth repellant and to clear cold-sufferers’ heads, the fragrance is comforting but less nuanced than the others, which are more suitable for perfumery.

The oils are sold in the farm shop, and online, and also sold to private companies for use in the fragrance and beauty industry.

The Hop Shop – is open daily throughout the year, however the Castle Farm Lavender fields are only in flower from late June until late July. Lavender plants for sale from the shop from late April/early May, but they explain, ‘the Lavender season really gets underway in mid-June and the glorious scent and vibrant colour of the fields fill the valley and we start to hand cut fresh Lavender bunches. Harvesting for oil starts in mid July and continues until early August, but is obviously weather dependent.’

Of course, on the day they began harvesting and the morning of our field trip – the heavens opened. If the rain lasts too long, half the entire crop can be lost in under an hour. Luckily, it wasn’t too long before we could venture out from under the trees and take photos – Castle Farm had the brilliant idea of including an Instagram Field, complete with perfectly positioned bench, so people can take scented selfies to their heart’s content, without disturbing the harvesting. Genius!

And to show it really is a family affari, this photo (above) is of William and Caroline’s grandaughter, taken by their talented son.

Castle Farm began harvesting while we were there, ‘…but it takes us over a week to clear all the fields, and the distillery is now running daily. We completed harvest of the large field at the back of the valley on 22nd July, but our field with the Lavender Bench and viewing area will NOT be harvested until after this weekend (27/28 July). We are still running Lavender Tours until we harvest our very last field!’

You can book online for weekday tours, or on arrival at the farm for weekend tours.

We’re not sure if it was the supremely soothing smell of the lavender or how long we’d been traipsing through the fragrant fields – possible a mixture of both – but goodness, we slept well that night.

We were also enthused to seek out four of our favourite lavender fragrances and urge you to do likewise. Forget the aromatherapy benefits for a moment and focus instead on the incredible nuances that lavender can add to a scent…

Atkinsons Lavender On the Rocks
True to the cocktail-esque name, this one has a double-shot of lavender to tickle your fancy. From the bracingly fresh opening with geranium and basil to the honeyed hay-like dry down with almond, guaiac wood and saffron, every facet is allowed to shine.
£130 for 100ml eau de parfum
harrods.com

Creed Aberdeen Lavender
An Oriental fougére, absinthe is added to rosemary, bergamot and lemon before succumbing to a powdered, musky lavender ramped up with tuberose, iris and a dusky rose. Dark patchouli, smoky leather and cool vetiver make for a surprisingly sexy flourish.
£200 for 100ml eau de parfum
libertylondon.com

Milano Centro HIM
Luminescent citrus segues to a herbaceously dappled breeze of rosemary, lavender and basil. As it warms, you’re swathed in the musky warmth of smooth sandalwood and suavely sprinkled spicy notes of clove, cinnamon and amber atop a darkly glimmering patchouli base.

Want to try it for yourself? Find this in our Explorer Men’s Discovery Box – along with SIXTEEN other fragrances to explore!

Tom Ford Private Blend Lavender Extrême
Trust Tom to turn lavender sexy. Here it’s subverted into an electric floral ‘to be worn at maximum volume.’ Bergamot drenches the lavender with freshness at first, then it’s full-on delicious with wild-grown tonka and creamy benzoin swirled to perfection.
£220 for 50ml eau de parfum
johnlewis.com

By Suzy Nightingale

Mitchell and Peach – outstanding in their field(s) of lavender. We loved them so much, we invited you, too!

For five generations, the incredibly photogenic Mitchells have been farming the same land deep in the heart of Kent – The ‘Garden of England’ – and cultivating everything from apples, strawberries, cobnuts, honey and chamomile. But it’s the lavender they’re perhaps most famous for – a swathe of purple shocking commuters into delighted squeals who glimpse it from their packed train carriages (ourselves included!) and gaze longingly as it hurries past…
introduction_2015
Imagine how thrilled we were, then, to receive an invitation to a press day at Mitchell and Peach. We immediately envisaged ourselves wafting through the fields wearing white summer dresses and straw hats, perhaps carrying a wooden trug brimming with the fragrant blooms – like a 1970s shampoo advert bathed in sunshine. Of course it rained (of course!) cometh the day, but it was absolutely impossible not to feel ridiculously happy surrounded by such beauty (seriously, even their barns are beautiful) – and by people who clearly cared so much about their crops and the gorgeously scented products they now make with them.
lavender
From 1923 to 1972, the Mitchells ran a thriving market stand on the south-west corner of old Covent Garden in London. Having celebrated 100 years at Foxbury Farm, it still remains the centre of their estate to this day, and continuing in the family’s tradition while diversifying their offerings, Ian and Jod Mitchell (see main picture) planted fine lavender on the estate.
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Such great quality were the essences distilled from this plantation, they were inspired to create a bath and body range, planted more lavender to keep up with demand and trial crops including chamomile – so wonderfully soothing and far more fragrant than you’d imagine when the petals are crushed beneath your fingers – and beehives for their fragrantly delicious honey. Here’s “Brett the Bee Man” (below) who guided us around the hives and so proudly explained his work…
Brett the Bee man at Mitchell and Peach
 
Far from the slightly fusty image some may have of a family business in such idyllic surroundings engaged in creating fragrances, skin-care and scented grooming products, this is no kitchen-table job. The perfumes are exquisite and so reminisent of their surroundings, yet totally contemporary and wearable by all. The streamlined, stylish packaging also enhances their no-nonsense ethos, and we left seriously impressed by everything we’d seen and smelled (and tasted – we highly recommend lavender as a swizzle stick!)
M&P drink
In fact, so impressed, we knew we just had to invite our VIP Subscribers along to share the treat with us – and what a treat it proved to be. Even the sun shone for our return visit…
13‘A sophisticated floral structured around rose, ylang ylang, peony and lavender, emboldened with larkspur and sweet fennel. This outstanding perfume is hand-blended in England with pure essential oils from the Mitchell estate. The result is a distinctive fine fragrance with a singular depth, warmth and elegance.’
Mitchell and Peach Fora No.1 £75 for 50ml eau de parfum
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‘A bright “green floral” inspired by the lush countryside of Foxbury Farm, the home of Mitchell and Peach. This unique scent is hand blended with natural extracts including soft citrus, coriander leaves, basil, mint and floral oils from the Mitchell Estate. It possesses an uplifting, aromatic freshness redolent of ‘mown meadows’, with a hint of musky cedar wood to lend complexity and depth.’
Mitchell and Peach English Leaf £55 for 50ml eau de toilette
Buy them at Mitchell and Peach
Written by Suzy Nightingale