There is a small corner of North West Kent which turns heads every year come July when ribbon-like rows of lavender grace its near 100 acres with a radiant purple. The locals have been enjoying this annual
display for more than a decade but now, extraordinarily picturesque and attention grabbing, it is becoming nationally – and internationally - famous (it features in the national press quite regularly and as I write there is an article today in The Daily Telegraph) and business is brisk the day I visit The Hop Shop, Castle Farm, Kent.
(Bunches of Folgate lavender for sale, images from the farm, and two heads of lavender from different species yielding lavender and lavandin oil)
Castle Farm and its outlet The Hop Shop are owned by the Alexanders. As well as being a working farmer, William Alexander is currently the High Sheriff of Kent and local ‘Duckmaster’ (at a plastic duck charity race in Shoreham) no less, whilst his wife Caroline with a degree from Cambridge, had a passion for drying flowers that saw her win five consecutive gold medals at the Chelsea Flower Show. The couple decided to go into lavender production about fifteen years ago needing to find a substitute for the acres of hops that the farm had been producing for decades but for which demand was dropping off. The original lavender plants the family started with came from France and, rather in the same way that English wine growers have proven that certain grapes can do very well in some English soils – it turns out that the Alexanders and their chalky Kentish ground at Castle Farm are now producing such quality lavender oil that they are exporting it back to France, in bulk.
I would recommend the Lavender Tour the farm offers throughout July (if you can get there before the lavender's all harvested)! The engaging and knowledgeable Hazel took our group into the fields and explained about the history of lavender at Castle Farm, the different types grown there and the typical end use for each kind. There are also aromatherapy massages – where you have the massage in the middle of the field – but unless you are already booked you’ll have to wait until 2016 for one as such is their popularity there are no slots now available.
(A group hearing about the different lavender species on an afternoon tour of the fields)
Lavender species have some wonderful names: Madrid Blue, Fathead, Somerset Mist, Jamboree, Melissa Lilac, Grosso and Folgate – the last two of which are a couple of the varieties grown at Castle Farm. Different lavenders or lavandin produce oils suitable for varied products and the abundance of plant variety is reflected in the sheer range of merchandise – it is far more than a fragrance – but of course there are oils, soaps, creams, candles, shampoos, bath salts etc and lots of them are for sale at The Hop Shop. Much to my greedy delight, there are also lavender flavoured chutneys, biscuits, chocolate pudding, tea mixes and ice-cream! It is revealed on the tour that the ice-cream producer took much the same dim view on the likelihood of the success of lavender flavoured ice cream as others did to the whole notion of growing lavender in England – and yet now it is one of the most popular flavours and selling well in The Hop Shop itself.
(Items in The Hop Shop)
The final part of the tour takes us to Castle Farm’s own distillery where the lavender oil is extracted. The aroma caused by the distillation process is almost overwhelming and perhaps too much of a good thing – on a hot afternoon it feels like we are inhaling neat lavender but it is inspiring to see the process all happening in the same place as it is harvested, and even though farming lavender on this scale is relatively recent in Kent – it has a reassuringly traditional feel to it. There are black figures on the wall which tell an interesting tale of lavender yields since production began on the farm – like most crops the yields are reliant on the weather – the drier the better and therefore the harvests are a fairly reliable reflection of the precipitation levels that year.
(The annual dates and lavender oil yields since production began at Castle Farm painted on the wall in the distillery; Hazel talking us through the distilling process and showing us the range of products that have use of their lavender; some lavender oil for sale in the shop)
Lavender season means busy at Castle Farm on a warm Saturday afternoon and there are a couple of other traders who have set up shop in the courtyard as well. It is an excellent place to visit either as an outing – if you are making a day of it, think about combining it with The World Garden at Lullingstone Castle, neighbouring property to the farm - or to pop in for regular quality supplies. The Hop Shop pride themselves on selling local produce and most of the food items are from Kent suppliers making it simply one of the best farm shops in the South East – one that also happens to be particularly fragrant and photogenic for a few weeks each summer.
(Mugs and cards showing images taken by another family member, Thomas Alexander who is a professional photographer, and linen water for ironing, which is taken from the distillery process, so nothing is wasted).
Many thanks to this week's Guest Blogger: Sarah Simpson of Shimmering Moon Photography for the article and fabulous photographs!
"My name is Sarah Simpson. I worked for nearly twenty years in television production including 15 years in television drama, working directly for broadcasters before setting up and running an independent production company. Throughout that time, I have always been a keen photographer. Now based in Kent, and notwithstanding the realisation that the more I learn about photography I find how much more there is to learn about it(!) I am starting to work as a freelance photographer and also to take on commissions for websites and social media purposes etc. If you want to have some good photographs of your products/place of business etc please call me to discuss. I am obviously more expensive than doing it yourself but I am very reasonable compared to a properly professional photographer – who, to be fair, will come with rather more experience and quality kit than I do. But my pictures are pretty. I can give references from people whom I’ve already provided photographic services for. I look forward to hearing from you."