Norfolk Lavender – a History
Realising that the great tradition of growing lavender in England was under severe threat, a local nurseryman, Linn Chilvers, made up his mind to keep it alive. This led him into a second career dedicated to growing and breeding lavender.
In 1932 Linn Chilver established a partnership with a local landowner Francis (“Ginger”) Dusgate to develop the growing and processing of lavender and for the next 60 years or so Norfolk Lavender Ltd was the only significant lavender farm in the UK. It remains England’s premier lavender farm.
By 1936 there were 100 acres under cultivation. Since then the enterprise has expanded significantly, and new varieties have been bred, starting with Royal Purple in 1944. Latterly Princess Blue, Imperial Gem and Sawyers, all very popular garden cultivars, have been introduced, and research into improved oil bearing varieties continues.
At the gateway to Heacham is Caley Mill. It was built using carrstone quarried at the top of Snettisham Hill and bought in 1837 by local landowner Hamon LeStrange. The introduction of the railway saw a decline in the mill’s fortunes and it ceased to be a working mill by 1919. It eventually became derelict and was finally purchased in 1936 by “Ginger” Dusgate as the new home of Norfolk Lavender Ltd.
The newly formed business soon began planting the area with lavenders. Originally the distillation took place nearby at Fring but that has now moved to Heacham where both drying and distilling can be viewed in the summer. In the distillery are two Victorian copper stills each of which holds 250 kgs of fresh lavender. The distillation process can be viewed by visitors to Caley Mill during July and August.
Internationally renowned, Norfolk Lavender Ltd still cultivates about 100 acres of lavender, and from that precious fragrant harvest their prized lavender products are distributed to over 25 countries around the world. In addition, over 150,000 visitors a year are welcomed to the Visitor Centre at Caley Mill which houses the National Collection of Lavenders as well as rose and herb gardens.
Norfolk Lavender’s tearoom, garden and gift shops have always been great attractions for visitors with a wide choice of freshly cooked cakes and meals, extensive selection of lavenders, herbs, and other perennials (with an emphasis on fragrance) and their own range of fragrant products and much else besides to delight keen shoppers of all ages.
One of the key events held at this popular Norfolk attraction, which celebrated its 75th Anniversary in 2007, is the annual Lavender Festival which takes place in July.
There have been many changes at Norfolk Lavender since 2009. These include the addition of a rare breeds farm, a farm shop, a children’s indoor play area, new outdoor play areas, tea rooms and gift shop outlets.
THE ANCIENT PROCESS OF DISTILLING: Steam distillation is a time honoured process for the extraction of essential oils. Fresh cut plant is put into a still (nowadays stainless steel but, traditionally, copper like Norfolk Lavender Ltd’s) and steam is passed through. The heat of the steam causes the oil to vaporise creating a mixture of oil, vapour and steam. These vapours are then cooled and condensed back to liquid. They flow into a separator and, in the case of lavender, peppermint, thyme and most other essential oils, being lighter than the water they float to the top and are drawn off. About 1kg of lavender oil should be extracted from 250 kgs of lavender herb following the 25 minute distillation process. The resulting oil is then stored to mature before being used in the Company’s wide range of English Lavender products.