The lavender fields of Lordington near Chichester
PUBLISHED: 10:06 21 July 2020 | UPDATED: 08:30 22 July 2020
Although sadly it won’t be staging its usual open week this year, Lordington Lavender near Chichester is welcoming a host of other visitors attracted by the flowers – from hares who shelter among the stems to red-listed bird species
There is a field near Chichester where, for a couple of weeks a year, it is possible to imagine oneself in Provence. Under a sky of blazing blue lie serried ranks of lavender plants flanked by a profusion of brightly coloured wildflowers – cornflowers, corn marigolds and camomile among them.
This is Lordington Lavender, where former dairy farmer Andrew Elms grows the blooms for high-quality essential oil. Describing the scene at this time of year, he says: “You’re just hit by this solid wall of purple, the drone and hum of tens of thousands of bumble and honey bees. And then the heady smell of lavender and scores of butterflies: fritillaries, common blues, peacocks, tortoiseshells and painted ladies, meadow browns and hummingbird hawkmoth...”
It’s all quite idyllic, and it would be easy to come over all poetic if there wasn’t weeding to be done – 19km of it, to be exact, and all of it by hand. This year, thanks to the pandemic, Andrew has lost his usual seasonal assistance so wife Rosie is helping him to pot on 5,000 lavender plugs, with another 10,000 to come later. These will be the first new lavender plants since the first ones went in 20 years ago, and by next year, the lavender field should have doubled in size from five to ten acres.
In 2000, after several dispiriting years of seeing his milk sell for less than the cost of producing it, Andrew decided to give up and try something new. “One of the things I’ve always enjoyed about farming is the flora and fauna of the farm,” he says. Then, as now, he was also growing arable crops, including conservation-grade oats for Jordans. “Under the scheme you have to put ten per cent of all your farmland into actively growing crops for the flora and fauna of the farm – crops like pollen and nectar mix.” While he was considering habitats for bees, Andrew hit upon lavender – and specifically Lavandula angustfolia ‘Maillette’, which is grown extensively in Provence for the perfume and aromatherapy markets. He went to the south of France for research but, he says laughing, “I can’t say the French were particularly helpful.”
He doesn’t use fertilisers or pesticides on the lavender and harvests the flowers using a lavender harvester – “a very old, tractor-driven machine which cuts one row at a time.” The flowers are then pitchforked into another huge, airtight trailer with steam pipes at the bottom and a chimney at the top and tens of thousands of pounds of steam are passed through. “After about six or seven hours, the oil evaporates into the steam, goes out of the chimney and into a condenser where the steam turns back to water, and the oil being lighter than water floats to the surface. We just drain it off. The only thing involved in making pure essential oil the way we do is fresh water.” He admits that it’s not the most efficient way of doing things: “It makes my oil a little bit more expensive than some, because you can go [to budget retailers] and buy it for £1 but that will have been solvent-extracted using chemicals, which leave a very metallic twang to the oil. Mine, I like to think, is very floral, fragrant and completely natural.”
In a normal year, Andrew expects to get around 40 to 50 litres of oil from his five acres, but variations in climate can have an enormous impact. “In a really good year such as 2018, when it’s exceptionally dry and the plant’s under a lot of strain and stress, I have had nearly 100 litres of oil and in a year when it’s really wet and cold and the plant’s under no stress at all, I’ve had zero litres. So the more stress the plants are under and the hotter and drier it is, the more oil you get.
“The worst year was in 2012 when it rained so much it killed the lavender off – they don’t like wet feet.”
One of the highlights for visitors is admiring the riot of colour around the edges of the lavender which comes from a mix of annual corn weeds – cornflower, cockle bush, corn marigold and corn camomile. “And then there are poppies,” says Andrew, “so it does look very striking. The difficulty is getting it to flower at the same time as the lavender!” With all these nectar-rich flowers come a huge variety of insects, he says. “There are six main species of bumblebee and we’ve got them all here. I leave a few rows for them to feed on until the lavender’s completely died.
“And then we’ve got the whole range of butterflies, including orange-tips, brimstones, cabbage whites, I’ve seen a couple of peacocks already and the painted ladies will come some time, hopefully next month. And then the meadow browns, the large blue, fritillaries – and we get quite a lot of the hummingbird hawkmoths.”
Then there is the bird life, attracted no doubt by the insects as well as the special wild bird seed plots planted for them by Andrew. The RSPB has identified 12 red-listed species on the farm, he says: “We’ve got the skylark, the grey partridge, we’ve had some lapwings. Turtle doves, tree sparrows. We’ve also got yellowhammers, greenfinches, goldfinches – they roost in the power lines and come down in great flocks. We put up bird boxes so we’ve got barn owls here, we’ve got red kite, hobbies sparrowhawks, kestrels, little owls. And hares like the lavender because they can hide amongst it.”
In a normal year these visitors are joined for a single week by brightly dressed human hordes, who come to admire the purple swathe and have their pictures taken amongst the flowers while enjoying lavender-flavoured treats supplied by the WI. There’s even an annual jazz evening: “On a lovely summer’s evening at the top of the hill looking down into the lavender with the sun setting behind you, it’s really quite something,” says Andrew. This year they will be offering virtual tours instead.
The farm now sells a range of products, from culinary essence and bath oil to dog shampoo, utilising the plant’s many beneficial properties.
His own favourite uses for lavender? “I love it in ice cream, we make a lot of that,” he says. “The shortbreads are very good. And now and again we put it in a bit of prosecco.”
But one of the flower’s main charms is lost to him: “I have become a little bit desensitised to the smell – except when it’s in full flower. On a day-to-day basis I don’t really notice it.” For more information visit lordingtonlavender.co.uk or search on Facebook for @LordingtonLavender