Lavender blue, dilly-dilly….

There was a time, not so long ago, when many of us associated lavender with little old ladies and viewed it as being slightly old-fashioned…. How times have changed – now it appears we cannot get enough of it…. Whether it’s the current trend for French Shabby Chic or our love affair with English nostalgia – lavender certainly earns a place in either category….

A couple of weeks ago I found myself wandering through the fields of a lavender farm…. It was a thoroughly delightful way to spend an afternoon – with the sun blazing down, the gentle buzz of bees and the fluttering of butterflies….and oh that glorious scent.

It wasn’t hard to imagine being in Provence but it was in fact far from the sunny depths of Southern France…. To be precise this lavender farm is located just 15 miles from the heart of London; Mayfield Lavender is situated in the North Surrey Hills, not far from Carlshalton. When it was founded some 13 years ago it was one of only 15 commercial farms in the UK; now there are over 30, a number that is growing year by year…. But what may come as a surprise is that once upon a time this area of Surrey, particularly Mitcham, Carlshalton, Sutton, Merton and Wallington was the capital of English lavender….

The history of lavender use goes back at least 2,500 years – certainly the Egyptians used it in the mummification process. It is quite likely it first came to these shores with the Romans….lavender’s origins are believed to be from the Mediterranean, India and the Middle East. Today it is cultivated not only in its native regions but throughout much of the rest of the World – North and South America, Australia, New Zealand, Russia, Japan, Europe….and of course, Britain….

The uses for lavender are endless…. It’s name derives from the Latin ‘lavare’ meaning ‘to wash’. We know the Romans used it to scent their clothing, bed linen (as it deters bed bugs and lice) and in their baths….

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It was also the Romans who discovered the medicinal properties of lavender. The oil is used as an anti-inflammatory, an antiseptic and disinfectant. It can help soothe insect bites, stings, sunburn and minor burns, small grazes, cuts and acne. It helps with indigestion and heartburn and can ease headaches and migraines – it can even help travel sickness. Of course, lavender is also well-known as a relaxation aid, reducing stress levels and inducing sleep….

Recorded evidence of its use in Britain starts in the 12th Century…. Washerwomen in Northern England were called Lavenders, as they scented newly washed linen with it, as it was thought to keep moths and insects away…. It has been grown commercially in the UK since the 1500s; Queen Elizabeth I was an advocate of it – she had it scattered before her as she walked and carried posies of it….the belief being in the Renaissance period not only did it mask bad smells but actually protected against plague…. In fact she loved lavender so much that she even had a special jam made from the herb….

Such became the desire for lavender that commercial growing began; everybody was using it, from scattering it amongst the rushes strewn upon their floors, to it being the main ingredient of their nose gays…. People would of course grow the plant in their gardens – it was even cultivated in monasteries and convents – but the high demand meant growing it on a much larger scale was a viable proposition….

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Surrey proved to be a particularly good region and it was Mitcham and the surrounding area that was to become the heart of lavender growth in the UK. Mitcham itself industrialised initially along the banks of the River Wandle, with varied industries including copper, iron, dye, flour and snuff. By 1750 Mitcham and nearby Merton Abbey had become the printing centre of calico cloth in England….1781 saw this expand to include silk printing…. William Morris opened a factory at Merton – ‘Merton Abbey Mills’ – and here the famous Liberty Silk printing works were based…. All this industrial activity led to the building of the Surrey Iron Railway, the World’s first public railway, in 1803….

But it was back in 1749 that the distillation of lavender water became a commercial venture on an industrial scale – led by two local physic (or medicinal herb) gardeners ~ Messrs Ephraim Potter and William Moore. Together they founded a company to produce toiletries and other products from locally grown lavender (and peppermint which was also grown in the area) – the company was called ‘Potter & Moore’….

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Author Motacilla via Wikimedia

The company set up a distillery to extract lavender oil in Eveline Road, Mitcham – overlooking what is now known as Figges Marsh. The business grew and flourished – and even more so when William Moore’s grandson James took over the helm…. An expert nurseryman with an excellent business head, he bought up surrounding land – by the end of the 1800s Potter & Moore owned 500 acres of land, on which they grew lavender, peppermint, chamomile, roses and pennyroyal….

The lavender was harvested in August; women would cut and bundle (referred to as ‘mats’) and these were then taken to the still room. Work in the fields was hard and poorly paid; in the peak of production during the 1800s the wage was just 10-15 shillings a day for a 14 hour shift – (this is actually good in comparison to what workers in lavender fields further south were paid – they could expect just 8 shillings a day – that’s 40p in today’s money!)….

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After the harvest had been taken to the still room the process of distillation could begin. The cut plants would be put into a ‘retort’ – a large vessel partly filled with water; it was then sealed, either with a door or a lid. Next it was heated; as the water reached boiling point a mixture of steam and oil rises – which then passed through a pipe into a condenser. The steam and oil were combined back into a liquid and ran through another pipe to a ‘separator’ – a tank where the oil would float to the top and the water would be allowed to drain away, leaving behind the pure lavender oil…. 3/4 of a ton of lavender plant would produce 11 or 12 pounds of oil ~ but a little of which goes a long way….

James Moore died in 1851 and then the business passed to his illegitimate son, James Bridger. The success of the company continued under Bridger; after his death in 1885 it was bought by W.J.Bush. In 1968 it was merged with two other companies to form Bush Boake Allen – to become the World’s largest supplier of perfumes. The Potter & Moore section of the business was then sold on again – as is so often the case in business it changed hands and became associated with other names several times more…. But on doing a quick search it is soon evident that Potter & Moore is still very much alive today….

The peak of lavender’s popularity can perhaps be attributed to one formidable woman, Queen Victoria ~ she loved it…. This in turn encouraged most other English ladies to follow suit – from the wearing of lavender eau de cologne, to scenting their linen and making tussie-mussies….they couldn’t get enough. Lavender symbolised cleanliness and purity – an important quality in Victorian times…. It is often said that Queen Victoria even preferred lavender jelly to mint sauce with her lamb….

Oil from British lavender was far more desirable than that of plants from other countries such as France – arguably the scent of English lavender is by far the sweetest (and the most superior of this being from the Mitcham area) – and so lavender from England fetched a much higher price….

By the 1930s most of the lavender fields in the Mitcham area had gone. The land was needed to satisfy the demand for housing; another contributing factor to the industry’s demise was that English grown lavender’s prices were being heavily undercut by French growers…. But the third and final nail in the coffin for Surrey’s lavender presented itself in the form of disease….Lavender Shab Disease to be precise – a fungus that kills the stems of the plant, the first signs being that the shoots wilt suddenly, even when there is no shortage of water….

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Potter & Moore took the necessary measures to protect their own business and by the 1930s had relocated their operation to East Anglia. So, it was to be that the English lavender industry was to fall into decline, with the only real exception being Norfolk lavender – and it was to stay this way until approximately 20 years ago….

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However, the Mitcham area has always remained proud of its lavender heritage; the local football team – Tooting and Mitcham United FC – have it on their badge and Merton Council features in on their coat of arms…. It must have been a great delight to many when lavender returned on a commercial scale to the region…. The owner of Mayfield Lavender had connections with Yardley, an old and established perfumery….and now Mayfield Lavender is a flourishing business in its own right – producing a varied range of lavender products, from bath and beauty preparations, essential oils to scented sachets, lavender tea and even shortbread. However, it wasn’t all plain sailing from the onset; in the first year magpies and crows destroyed nearly 70,000 young lavender plugs – and planting had to start all over again the following year….

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Early morning at Mayfield Lavender Image credit: Beeches Photography – Rudoni Productions via flickr.com

Maybe Mayfield Lavender happened to read the market correctly and recognised an opportunity as English lavender began to rise in popularity once again – or perhaps the likes of Mayfield are responsible for this resurgence …. Whichever reason it cannot be denied English lavender is once again very much in vogue…. In fact, it is now French lavender that is in decline….

Our revived love of lavender includes all the old traditional ways of using it: perfumes, cosmetics, room and laundry fresheners, dried flower arranging or even as a natural confetti at weddings ~ but we are also embracing its merits in the kitchen too…. Its culinary use doesn’t just stop at the lavender jelly Queen Victoria favoured…. Use it in salads, soups, meat and seafood dishes, desserts, confectionery – even cheese making! In baking it is especially popular – lavender cookies are a favourite…. Use the leaves as you would rosemary to flavour meat and vegetables and the flower buds for baking…. And of course, lavender produces abundant nectar, making a glorious high quality honey….

We can’t all grow lavender on a commercial scale but for those of us with a garden it makes a wonderful addition – both for its beauty and the wealth of uses its harvest can bring…. Lavender thrives best in dry, well-drained soil – either sandy or gravelly and it prefers full sun. It needs pruning once a year to prevent it from growing ‘leggy’ and becoming too woody – but apart from that it needs little care…. Grow it in the garden for fewer slugs, snails and aphids….but at the same time attract butterflies and bees….

“Lavender blue, dilly~dilly
Lavender green
If I were king, dilly~dilly, I’d need a queen”…

Please…. If you have read this post through to the end – then I assume you have found it of interest and I hope you’ve enjoyed it…. If you have found this via Facebook a little ‘like’ for the Cottage Capers page would be very much appreciated…. I’m not trying to sell you anything – I’m simply a blogger trying to establish myself…. Many thanX….

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Strew thy floor with herbs….

After a month of having a poorly rabbit living in the bathroom I have got used to constantly clearing up a trail of straw and hay that seems to find its way around the rest of the house…. In days gone by that would have been perfectly normal in this old place; in fact, the floors would have been totally covered with the stuff….

When we first took possession of this cottage, one of our first jobs was to take up the brick floors of the bathroom and what is now the dining room. The brick was prone to drawing up moisture and so constant damp floors were an issue.  That said, even that – in its time – must have been an improvement on what was there before….plain, simple compacted mud. Yes, we often joke about living in a place with mud floors, this old cottage had literally just that….

The kitchen has old Victorian flagstones (unfortunately they are un-aesthetically pleasing – so now provide a base for wooden laminate flooring) but this floor too would once have been plain mud….

Grander abodes may have had stone floors – but mud or stone, neither offered much in the way of home comfort when left bare…. So, to overcome this, the floors would have been covered with reeds, rushes or straw. This made a soft ‘carpet-like’ covering, providing a little warmth and helping with cleanliness by soaking up spillages (and worse)….as in days gone by it wasn’t unusual for the inhabitants to share their dwelling with their most valuable assets….their livestock. Of course, cows, sheep, goats, pigs and chickens are difficult to house train….

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Photo credit: Shy Goats Daveography.ca via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/raptortheangel/14685132727/

As if the smell of ‘eau de goat’ constantly lingering in the air wasn’t bad enough – the people probably didn’t smell much better either, as folk did not tend to bath much in the Middle Ages….

Then there were the other uninvited household inhabitants to be considered; rats, mice and other scampering rodents….and with these creatures came fleas, lice and ticks; the straw covering the floors and providing the stuffing for mattresses….an absolute haven for them….

Some households may have replaced the straw or reeds on a fairly frequent basis but the majority would have only changed them a couple of times a year, some may have not bothered at all…. Quite possibly a new layer would just have been added as required, the bottom, rotting layers staying in place for years….

In a previous blog I talked about how nose gays were used by people to overcome unpleasant odours – that was not the only way powerful smelling herbs were used to mask rancid, disagreeable whiffs….

All areas of the home, kitchens, dining halls, sleeping areas would have had herbs strewn amongst the floor covering. They would have been put amongst the straw of bedding and scattered across tabletops….any where they could release their sweet aromas….

When scattered on the floor the herbs would be crushed underfoot when walked upon; some herbs were chosen for their scent, others because they acted as a deterrent to insects, such as fleas….

The best strewing herbs according to Thomas Tusser’s “Five Hundred Good Points of Husbandry” (1573) were:- Bassel (basil), Bawlme (lemon balm), Camamel (chamomile), Costemary (costmary), Cowsleps and Paggles (cowslips), Daisies of all sorts, Sweet Fennel, Germander, Hysop (hyssop), Lavender, Lavender Spike, Lavender Cotton (santolina), Marjoram, Mawdelin, Penny Ryall (pennyroyal), Roses of all kinds, Red Myntes, Sage, Tansy, Violets and Winter Savery….

Many other herbs may have been included; mint, thyme, rosemary, meadowsweet, wormwood, rue, sweet woodruff…. Pennyroyal was used particularly as a flea or tick repellent and meadowsweet was a fond favourite of Queen Elizabeth I…. Part of the purpose of the Mediaeval and Elizabethan garden was to grow herbs for strewing….

Of course, it wasn’t just private abodes that had mud or stone floors, just about all buildings did, including churches. Church pews did not arrive until the 1400s; in fact, our very own church, St. Mary and All Saints, here in Dunsfold, is reputed to have the very first pews in the Country. Before seating was available those attending Services had to stand, kneeling when required to pray…. Only the rich could afford cushions, so it is not hard to imagine the discomfort such floors caused to the knees….

Once again the floors would have been strewn with rushes and herbs….making things a little more comfortable and at the same time disguising nasty odours from the unwashed bodies of the congregation packing the church, or perhaps those of the deceased buried under the church floor…!

Each year, typically in the late summer, the old, rotten rushes were cleared out ready to be replaced. It didn’t take long for the process to become an annual Parish event…. It became an excuse for villages across the Land to celebrate and party when the church’s rushes were replaced; a celebration with revelry, feasting, drinking and Morris dancing….

The rushes were taken to the church in carts, in what was to evolve into Rush Bearing Processions. The rush-cart would be decorated with garlands of flowers (which were then used to decorate the inside of the church) and often silver plate items, borrowed from those in the community fortunate enough to own some….and then the cart would have been pulled along by a team of men….

The processions became competitive, with each village trying to ‘out-do’ the next…. Competition was intense, to who had the biggest and best cart…. Possibly due to the large quantities of ale consumed, sometimes brawls broke out between opposing teams…. It was not unusual for church ministers to refuse entry into their churches of rowdy rush-bearers….

Sweet flag, a strongly aromatic perennial plant, was introduced to Britain during the 1500s and became the centre-piece of rush-bearing ceremonies. A versatile material, with medicinal and culinary uses, it was also used on some English cottages as thatching….

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Photo credit: Sweet Flag milesizz via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/8583446@N05/3690603555/

Each church tended to allocate one day in the calendar for the ceremony. By the 16th Century, the bells were rung and ale, wine and cake were provided for the rush-bearers. Each church has a patron saint allocated to it at the time of consecration; an annual feast (wake) was held on the nearest Sunday to the official feast day of the allocated saint. By the 18th Century the rush-bearing ceremony usually formed part of the church’s feast day….

Rush strewing in churches died out in the early 1800s, as floors became flag-stoned…. Records show that one of the last was the church in Saddleworth, North Yorkshire, its floors were covered until 1826. Nowadays, certain areas, mainly confined to the North West areas of Cheshire and Lancashire, (although a small part of West Yorkshire participates too), have revived the tradition. Processions attract large crowds of spectators; the carts are highly decorated, with teams of men pulling them, whilst the ladies ride on top…. Who knows, perhaps it will become a celebration which spreads to the rest of the Country….let’s face it, nothing’s changed in that respect….any excuse to party….

The tradition of the little girl at a wedding, preceding the bride with a basket of petals and herbs comes from herb strewing…. Herbal weddings are becoming increasingly popular. Very often newly wed couples are showered with natural confetti, either fresh or dried. Many people like to make their own, maybe blending certain flowers and herbs to convey a personal message, they may incorporate: lavender – for luck and devotion, rose petals – for love, marjoram – for joy and happiness, chamomile – for patience and sage – to wish a long life….

To gather herbs for strewing in the home, they need to be picked in dry weather and it is best to hang them upside down in bunches to dry….

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Photo credit: Dried Herbs Caitlinator via Foter.com / CC BY Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/caitlinator/4534924413/

To make a herb powder for use in the home:

1 cup borax : 1/2 cup salt : 1/2 cup powdered mint : 1/2 cup powdered rosemary : 1/2 cup powdered mug wort : 1/2 cup dried lavender

Herbs can be ground in a coffee grinder or spice mill (kept solely for the purpose) to make powder

Mix dry ingredients together – add 12 drops of essential oil of choice…. Sprinkle on rugs and carpets; leave overnight and vacuum in the morning….

Another easy tip: sprinkle lavender under rugs and doormats, to keep rooms smelling sweet – the scent is released when the lavender is crushed when the rug/mat is walked upon….

Happy strewing….

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Photo credit: A pile of dried lavender herb fotografeleen via Foter.com / CC BY-SA Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/fotografeleen/7839750708/