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Hitchin's soothing lavender fields
Lavendar
Hitchin was once one of only two major lavender growing areas in the country

A Hertfordshire family are successfully soothing us with their unusual purple crop.

Nick and Tim Hunter's family have farmed at Cadwell Farm in Hitchin for more than 100 years and for five generations.

In 2000, the family decided to diversify away from cereals and revive the once thriving lavender industry in the area.

Business is now booming!

In the 16th Century, Hitchin was one of only two major lavender growing areas in the country and by the 19th Century 100 acres were grown around the town. It soon became renowned nationally, although the work was incredibly labour intensive.

Each lavender field could continually produce abundant crops for five years before they needed to be uprooted and burned, providing a fragrant and captivating aroma that blew across the whole town.

Business Booming

But business is now booming in the town again with Hitchin Lavender growing plants in 12 acres and producing 250 litres of lavender oil a year from five different varieties.

Things are so good that Nick and Tim left their office jobs earlier this year and returned to help their parents with the farm.

lavender
The sea of purple is certainly a sight to be enjoyed by visitors

"Both my brother and I went off and did very different things before we came into farming," said Nick.

"[Tim] was probably the most extreme as he spent several years living in Argentina, but he decided that he wanted to come back into farming.

"I myself spent eight or nine years working in London and I still live there" he added, "so I actually commute to the lavender fields every day by train. I think I'm probably the only commuting farmer. I don't quite do it in Wellington boots but it's certainly quite an unusual way of doing it."

And brother Tim certainly has no regrets about his decision to leave South America where he was teaching English.

"No, not at all!" said Tim.

"It's beautiful here and I always wanted to keep being a part of the farm, I always had that in the back on my mind and it's lovely to be back here."

Essential oil

The family currently crop five varieties. Folgate, Maillette, Ashdown Forest, Grosso and Lullington Castle which are Intermedias, but the bulk of their crop is the Grosso variety.

The oil, which is only produced from the flowers and flower-stalks, has antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties and is commonly used to heal insect bites and treat acne. Many also use is as an essential oil to treat a wide range of conditions from migraines and skin complaints to stress, depression, tension and exhaustion.

The family uses the lavender oil that they produce to make a number of products from lip balm, shampoo, soap and all kinds of bath products to wheatbags, which you heat in a microwave to provide relief for aches and pains.

These products are all sold on the farm, and from manning this shop to planting, weeding and harvesting, the whole family mucks in and is involved in all aspects of the business.

"I think like any small business, we all do everything really," said Nick, "so literally we're outside and spend days weeding the fields as we've got about 20 miles worth of rows.

"When we're not doing that we're making teas and coffees and stocking the shop or labelling up products and making the products with dried lavender.

"So everyone does a little bit of everything. Tim's wife even makes up and sews the wheatbags!"

"[As a family] I think it unites us and makes us stronger," added Tim, "and it's really successful."

Unique harvesting

Not everything needs to be done by hand though. The harvesting is done using a mixture of hand and machinery as Nick explained.

"For things like fresh cut bunches or for dried lavender we do that by hand" he said, "so it's a case of taking a knife and cutting them into bunches, but for the main crops, for the oil and the pot pourris we use a mechanical harvester."

This machine has been especially designed and built by Cranfield University so that it only cuts the heads off the flower, rather than the stem as well.

"The lavender harvester is unique," explained Tim.

lavender
The harvesting is done using a mixture of hand and machinery

"The way that it cuts the heads of the lavender is that it plucks the tops off, so you don't get a lot of green in it. But there are still a couple of stalks in it, so what we have to do is almost like panning for gold. We basically sieve it so you end up with all the smaller pieces - a fine grain which smells incredible.

"The oil in the lavender plant is stored in the flower so if you walk up and down the fields, to get the scent of the flower you just stroke the flower. But when it's been cut or dried, the way to release the extra scent is to squeeze it or stroke the flower, and that's really where you get the scent from.

"To keep the aroma you must put it inside a bag because otherwise the oil will come off in your hands," he added.

"When it's in the field it's fine because it will keep reproducing the oil, but once it's been cut obviously it can't produce oil anymore. So we try to not touch it with our hands, we sieve it and then place it very delicately in a little embroidered bag and then of course you can squeeze the outside of the bag and that will release the oils and release the scent."

Relaxed

So, does working with such a strong aroma all day, mean that the family are very relaxed all the time?! Tim revealed all!

"You think you'd get used to it," he said, "but it certainly makes you drowsy when you've been weeding all day!"

The sea of purple in the midst of the Hertfordshire countryside is certainly a sight to be enjoyed, and the family actively want the general public to pay them a visit.

"Because it's up on a hill it seems to go on forever" explained Nick, "and certainly a large number of people have commented that it's like a little bit of Provence in England, so it's proving to be quite popular with people coming to visit."

"We encourage people to come round," continued Tim.

"We're open every day apart from Monday. The entrance fee into the field allows you to pick some lavender too, so we encourage people to come and go home with a bunch of locally grown lavender!"




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