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Spotlight On Norfolk Lavender Farm

by Teresa Lloyd(more info)

listed in aromatherapy, originally published in issue 108 - February 2005

"Just follow your nose", is my only advice to anybody considering taking a first time trip to Norfolk Lavender Farm. Though this intriguing site is remote and totally obscure by anyone's standards, I can confidently assure any potential visitor, making the journey is well worth the sacrifice.

I promised myself a weekend trip to revisit this popular vivid landscape since mid-June 2003. That was when I successfully managed to convince my husband to come along, knowing only too well how much he enjoys a good whiff of purple-packaged toiletries. They remain irresistible to investigate whenever out shopping for bathing products or something as simple as shampoos or soaps. This time it felt more appropriate to travel on my own. For many people, travelling to Caley Mill needs patience and determination to reach this 'purple pocket' of Norfolk coast, since it is obscurely situated near Hunstanton, tucked in The Wash off North East Norfolk.

As I walked closer to the main road I noticed several coaches parked on the side-roads as a familiar sign that tells me there are already hundreds of tourists who want to capture the sight and experience the aroma of nature's precious herb – Lavender.

A 'Cure All' Gift of Nature

Living in cities such as London can actually alienate us from nature, where it is difficult to escape crowds and the overall fast pace of living compared to a rural environment. Our modern obsession with 'time' and 'making money' has a knock-on effect that inevitably lowers our immune systems. To come and experience this region of immense natural beauty is a tonic for the soul. Being already committed to the daily use of essential oils, I felt that coming here to watch the 'process' of producing them a long overdue duty.

At the Norfolk Lavender Farm they grow as many as 126 varieties, though just five are used to produce the essential oil. There are more uses for lavender than are often realized. One of my favourites is to apply a few droplets into my facial steamer and inhale the vapour that clears my head and throat. The reason it is my first choice is due to the natural versatility of the plant. Lavender can be used to calm, revive and rebalance our emotions. Other practical uses can include alleviating high blood pressure, clearing blocked sinuses, as a remedy to heal wounds, cuts, grazes, wasp stings, fever, shock, headaches, and fear as well as to counteract anger. The list is endless, not forgetting its culinary use as an added extra for making honey. Even dried lavender heads can be used to offer an herbal scent to the home using open dishes. Since lavender is associated with Mercury – a neutral planet that balances yin and yang, its strongest empowering ability to rebalance mood-swings can be found in its chemical content.

The Chemical Clues

The art of distillation for obtaining essential oils has been known and used since 10th Century AD. Though the earliest process was first thought to come from Persia, where many such herbs grew, some later findings in Italy revealed that the Romans were already using simple 'stills' from archaeological findings.

The moment I stepped into the barn where I spotted the two working 'stills' I inhaled a deep breath to fully experience this superior concoction of soothing vapours. A natural tonic for my lungs, I thought to myself, while the workmen were taking a short lunch break just outside the indoor shed.

Being aware that lavender is non-toxic, non-irritant and non-sensitizing is enough assurance to give any tourist, who might suffer with only asthma, peace of mind to stay where this centuries old craft takes place to absorb the natural healing atmosphere. L.augusifolia, contains high levels of a chemical known as occitone 3. Some of the most active constituents of lavender oil include linalyl, geranyl, linolil, cineol, d-borneol, limonene, l-pinene, caryophylelene, plus esters butyric acid, valerianic acid and courmarin.

Uses and Actions

If travelling abroad to any remote exotic destination, such as the Far East or the Indian Ocean islands or Central or Southern America, I recommend you take a little amber of lavender oil. With its soothing anti-inflammatory and antiseptic characteristics it can be blended with bergamot and lemon to help minimize the risk of mosquito bites, insects or roaming midges that find open unprotected skin most attractive. But sometimes we have to learn the hard way, through painful experience, before speaking of bitter regrets of not thinking of taking this liquid 'first-aid' remedy as part of our luggage.

The insect repellent properties of lavender oil date back to the Middle Ages when it was often used to protect clothing and household linens. The Victorians too, created a far reaching range of domestic and medical uses for this and realizing its healing qualities for douches and to treat Athlete's Foot using a mixture of thyme – ten drops, lavender – ten drop, Tea tree oil – ten drops. To use, cover the surrounding skin with a fatty cream and dab the mixture on the affected area. Repeat once or twice a day.

Another highly valued Victorian tradition used to be the custom to apply lavender perfume to scent drawer-liners for dressing tables and wardrobes. In some households, spraying stationery was common practice. My second tip for busy cooks is keep a jar in the kitchen drawer to remedy sudden burns or minor cuts. The contents act quickly as an analgesic that simultaneously relieve pain and keep the wound free of bacteria.

My Guided Tour at the Distillery

Our tour guide is Sheila. She's smartly dressed in a purple uniform that all Norfolk Farm workers wear to be easily identified. "Can anybody tell me why we manage to grow so much lavender here?" Sheila questioned us as if at school. Few gave any response, from her small audience. "The answer lies in the chalky soil. Lavender plants don't like to get their feet wet, so they need good drainage to grow successfully."

Being at the Farm became more like an informal lesson in horticulture with my guide making me suddenly realize that lavender will only thrive in an alkaline based soil. Extreme temperatures can have disastrous affects on the health of the plant. Though lavender is sturdy, it still requires some protection from freezing conditions, as Sheila went on to explain. "Lavender needs plenty of good sunshine before and throughout the harvesting season to produce the highest quality oil." I couldn't stay put amongst the crowd and preferred to drift toward the distillation stills that have been operating since 1936. What made our tour more exciting was the noise of twittering birds who'd made themselves clearly at home in the high corners of the beams.

"Here, we still use the traditional methods for recording when the 'still' is emptied. There are no computers in here, everything's by hand," Sheila reminded us all. I spotted how the black strokes of a marker pen were simply applied to a cardboard leaning on a chair to record the number of times it had been emptied. Steam is passed through the still combined with oil vapour is collected through a condenser. Eventually, the pure essential oil is collected in the separator. It's a patient process since it has to be allowed to mature for at least a year before the oil can be put on the shop shelves.

Being at the Norfolk Lavender Farm feels like a step back in time from the 21st Century world of computers and automated technology. All the tools and equipment that are used here today are traditional and simple. Distillation involves heating the plants in boiling water which cause the wall of the stems to swell then break down, which in turn releases the vapour that is gathered into a pipe and collected in a cooling tank.

Thankfully I had my camera on standby to record the arduous physical labour intensive job. Caley Mill originated as a flour mill. The founder, Linn Chilvers, started the nursery garden and florist business back in 1874 in Heacham and Hunstanton. He dreamed of growing lavender on a large commercial scale. Today, the Norfolk Lavender Farm attracts 150,000 visitors both nationally and internationally. It proves his original dream has come true.

The site continues to carry the legacy of his early enthusiastic commitment to the development, growth and quality of producing pure essential oil that has been handed down through the family.

The opportunity to simply gaze over these pacifying fields render the power to relax, resolve our cares and redeem our souls.

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About Teresa Lloyd

Teresa Lloyd is a freelance writer for Mauritius News with a special interest in horticultural beauty spots and distillery sites both in England and Mauritius. She lives in south London with her husband. Her first book Where Do You Come From was due to be published late in 2004.

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