Move over strawberry fields... lavender has arrived! Ahh. The smell of it. That unmistakable mix of floral and herbal. It’s relaxing, healing and I absolutely love it - always have. For me, there’s something about the scent that can be calming and soothing on the one hand and on the other, it can give you a natural boost.
Don't worry... I'm not about to get hooked and do dodgy lavender deals in pub car parks ;), but I never knew why it could have different effects, until I visited the beautiful lavender fields we’re lucky to have in Somerset. It’s down to the different types of lavender you can grow (of course it is!). Did you know there’s around 47 species and over 200 varieties? That's definitely a lorra lorra lavender!
Anyway, as well as a natural boost, we could probably all do with a little more calm and relaxation in our lives. Switching off has never exactly been my strong point, so the idea of lavender as a natural stress relief superstar is pretty appealing – and as it turns out, we’ve got two lovely places in Somerset to walk through fields of precious purple, chill out with a cup of tea and lavender cake (or scones, clotted cream and lavender jam), take a deep breath and reset the dial. So, I decided to go on a bit of a lavender adventure… to discover more about both lavender spots and what you can do with this magically scented shrub!
1. Somerset Lavender, Horsepond Farm, Faulkland, BA3 5WA
Drive through the tiny village of Faulkland, with it's pretty stone cottages and carefully cared for gardens and you'll discover this once dairy farm, that's now home to two huge fields of lavender (over 5 acres, packed with more than 50,000 lavender plants), a walled 'healing' lavender garden trialling over 20 different varieties of lavender and a plant nursery, where you can get inspired and buy your own little pots to take home.
The nursery is happily housed in a roofless adapted tanker, creating a contemporary vibe amongst the lavender fields, tea room and little wooden gift shop...
I head here on a quiet Wednesday afternoon, just before the lavender fully blooms and with the breeze carrying the sweet scent through the air and the gentle hum of the bees at work, it's heavenly wandering round - smelling the different varieties and getting lost in the still of the afternoon.
I'm sure it'd be equally cool during really busy times too. I've seen lots of Instagram pictures of friends and families meeting for cuppas and catch ups here and at only nine miles from Bath and six from Frome, it feels like another world... so I can totally understand why it's a popular place to gather and while away the Summer hours.
Off one of the fields there's a cut through to a public footpath and while I don't have the dogs with me today, I make a mental note to come back and discover where it leads. That'd be a great day - a nice walk with our dogs and then a stop off for tea, cake and lavender!
Anyway, after my solo mooch around I bump in to owner, Judith, in the cafe and shop. She makes me a lavender tea, I choose a slice of homemade lavender and almond cake (which is melt in the mouth soft and beautifully fragranced by the way) and we have a play with some of the essential oils they make from their harvested lavender.
We pop a few drops of each one on to some tiny bits of paper and breathe in deeply, so I can decide which one to take home. I choose Lavandula Augustifolia 'Mailette', a limited availability oil with a "very fine fragrance and healing properties". To me, it smells slightly less sweet than some of the others, softer and dreamy and I'm already letting out a huge sigh of relax as I inhale! ;)
Anyway, to make these beautiful oils, the crop in the fields is harvested with a side-mounted cutter, that slices the lavender in to little sheafs (think 'wheat sheafs', but a lot smaller). Then, as Judith tells me,
"harvest helpers that live nearby, load the lavender into potato boxes and once we get those in the barn, the bundles are stood up to let the air circulate. That's when my husband, Francis, starts the distilling process. We've got a huge stainless steel still which has a capacity of about 1,000 litres. The lavender is held in place at the top of the still, water is heated from the bottom and the steam that's created captures the essential oil in the flowers".
I've read that distlliing oil in this way makes the extracts 70 times more potent than the plant itself, so it's no wonder it's commonly thought to help pain relief, headaches and migraines, muscle aches and sprains, allergies, asthma, insect bites and a whole host of other things besides.
I love the little shop and Judith's passion for making everything locally, with skills from within the village, shines through in her expression when we chat. It also means you can often see the gifts being handcrafted there and then. I buy a heatable lavender bag that’s been handmade in the corner of the shop, by a crafter presumably fueled by lavender tea! ;)
What a special place Somerset Lavender is. Everything's been created with huge care and a genuine passion to make sure that as a visitor, your experience with the lush lavender is a magical one from start to finish. I can see how important that is to Judith and Francis:
"When we changed our business from a dairy farm to lavender, we didn't know what to expect and when we opened our doors several years ago, we were so grateful to our first visitors. That appreciation still continues to this day and we love welcoming people to the fields".
Well, I definitely leave with a feeling of warmth that wraps around me like a comfort blanket late at night... and when I get home, I pop a few drops of essential oil in my bath and relax like I haven't in a long while!
If you fancy a visit to Somerset Lavender, their opening times are:
Summer - 1st May to 30th September, Wednesday to Sunday, 10am to 5pm.
Winter - Wednesday November 8th to Sunday December 17th, 10am to 4pm, for Christmas Shopping.
2. Lavender & Co, Axbridge Bypass, Axbridge, Somerset. BS26 2DW
At the other end of the county, more lavender is being grown, harvested, made in to beautiful lavender products and another field is open for us all to enjoy.
Meet Carole (a force of nature and ex-pilot who used to fly Tiger Moths no less!) who, with her husband Barry (they met when Barry was a pilot tutor), have literally changed strawberry fields to lavender forever!
Their gorgeous two acre field isn't too far from an old railway line known as 'The Strawberry Line' because of the masses of strawberries grown here in days gone by. The railway line closes, strawberry growing stops and when Carole and Barry move to the area 19 years ago, they spot that the gently sloping, well-drained land is perfect for the purple stuff! Fast forward through their research and visits to other lavender farms both near and far, and their own lavender adventure begins... 11 years ago when they plant their first batch and decide what they'll make with it.
The couple now have 15 different varieties growing here, with a focus on culinary lavender (check out their famous lavender syrup), essential oils, toiletries and on experimenting... having fun with the lavender to see what can be created.
When we pull in to their field for the first time, we notice there's a real family feel about it. It's very casual and all about the lavender and the awesome things Carole and Barry make with it. There are no frills... and no electricity! :) Carole serves light lunches and cream teas (with a lavender twist) from a generator-powered cafe and even late on a Saturday, it's still busy with people sitting at mismatched tables right next to the lavender, eager to get the best view (and scent) of the field - and chat about their weekends.
There are toys for families who want to come and play the day away and our hounds, Petal and Flower Pot Noodle, are immediately made to feel at home - with lots of fuss from Carole. They settle on the edge of the field for a chill out, while I chat to Carole and Barry to get the low down :).
"We started out with pick your own lavender" Carole tells me, "as the first year we grew lots more than we ever thought. We planted a quarter of the field with 9 different types of Lavandula Angustifolia (English Lavender), which has a sweeter, softer fragrance to that of French Lavender and we just kept going from there."
As we chat, I try the lavender tea and can't resist a scone, cream and lavender jam. I have to say, the jam is absolutely goregous... with the hint of lavender almost breaking through the sweetness of the jam as a surprise, as you have to wait a couple of seconds before the flavour gently hits!
And Carole has a few tips about cooking with lavender:
"I love to experiment. I’m a bit of a cook anyway and over the years I've created some great dishes just by trying different things out. They key to cooking lavender is to choose the right culinary variety and not to put too much in. A subtle hint is all you need".
Well, Carole definitely knows her stuff (I could eat her lavender jam until the cows come home/all the lavender is harvested! ;)) and because of that, she often gives illustrated talks "Lavender - the forgotten herb" at various events. The talks cover the rich history of lavender and what they do with those precious buds at Lavender & Co.
The other thing we really love about the produce Carole and Barry create is that it's absolutely pure. As Carole says of their lavender syrup:
"When we looked in to how to make syrup, we couldn't believe how many ingredients there are in some makes... and so many nasties! Again, I experimented and found that the best flavour was absolutely natural. Ours only has sugar, lavender and distilled water in it. We intensify the colour with natural vegetable dye and that's all. I think my favourite thing to have our syrup with, is gin or prosecco - and did you know a great cure for migraines is lavender and gin? Drizzling ours over fresh strawberries and ice cream is also fab".
Ahh - Carole is definitely a gin lover after my own heart and I sometimes get migraines, so her recommendation for a migraine cure is music to my ears!! ;)
Essential oil is made here too of course, and as Barry tells me:
"Like a single estate wine, we have a limited supply of fresh lavender and oil from our harvest each season".
Barry's responsible for distilling the oil (with a cheeky beer while he monitors the process! :)) and the little onsite shop showcases the variety of products Carole and Barry make here... keeping visitors, shops and stockists full of lavender lotions, potions, oils and heaps more besides.
After a lovely chat, we take a stroll to the top of the field and there's another unexpected surprise up there, just waiting to be discovered. The view... right over to the reservoir. What a beauty!
There's also a bench or two up at the top of the gently sloping hill, so you can take your tea, take a seat and watch Carole and Barry's lavender world go by. Perfect! (Flower, definitely thinks so! ;))
The other great thing about Lavender & Co is that it's right on the Mendip Way, with a drove close by that you can walk up to access the path, so if you're planning a walk, including Lavender & Co as a stop-off is definitely a brilliant choice. Beware though... you might end up staying all afternoon like we did! ;)
We definitely struggled to leave this perfectly formed plot of fragranced beauty.
If you fancy a visit to Lavender & Co, the field is open every Saturday, Sunday and Bank Holiday until the end of August. Well behaved dogs on leads are made very welcome. The field is available for photo shoots/filming on request and guided walks around the field are also offered if you pre-book.
You can follow Carole and Barry on Twitter, right here.