A bumblebee careens clumsily about a lone yellow foxglove, surrounded by row upon row of lavender bushes, their flowers oscillating gently in the breeze. The sun beats down on my neck. I pick a head from a nearby plant, roll its buds between my fingers and inhale its distinctive scent. I sigh happily.
This is surburbia at its most suburban, a world of cul-de-sacs, washing the car, trimming the hedge, dreaming of the countryside, commuting to the city. A land I long to forget.
To me the suburbs are an early example of man’s erasing of history in pursuit of progress. Often all that is left of an area’s past amongst the identikit ‘between-the-wars’ semis lies hidden in seemingly disconnected street signs or the names of the few pubs not yet afflicted with a nasty gastro disorder.
So too in Mitcham, once the world capital of lavender production. Where now all I can see are tiled roves and satellite dishes, once stretched lavender fields as far as the eye could see.
Originally brought over by the Romans, by the 1700s the area – along the banks of the River Wandle – was so productive that at one time it was the heaviest worked river in the UK. And not just lavender. At its peak as a productive river there were 90 mills along its 14 miles course from its spring in Surreys north downs to where it runs into the Thames at Wandsworth. Everything from leather tanning and snuff grinding to silk dying and beer distilleries. All this industry in turn led to the construction of the world’s first public railway in 1803. Indeed Old Mitcham Station is widely considered the first station in the world. Now thankfully such an icon of our heritage has – according to its new owners – “been sympathetically restored to offer 12 offices”. With entryphone system and surveillance cameras for each ‘business suite’.
However this industry also took its toll on the lavender growing. Pollution made it harder for the plants to grow. Over the years the gentle waft of lavender and peppermint became replaced by the metallic reek of paint and the burnt stench of brewery.
What finally killed off the fields was the population explosion that industrialization brought to the south east, both before the first world war and then directly after it, when the pressure for land meant it was simply too tempting a proposition to the fields owners to sell to the developers.
And that would have been the end of the story, were it not for the proximity of an organization called BioRegional. Best known as being the organization behind the iconic BedZed housing development, BioRegional also works with local groups to develop sustainable local industries – paper making, charcoal, and, in the case of Mitcham, Lavender.
What happened next is down to in great part the two men standing with me amongst the lavender. Roger Webb has lived around Mitcham all his life. Now in his 50s, he has had all manner of different jobs – tree surgeon, metal worker, council officer, HGV driver, and car mechanic, which he still does to make ends meet. However, for some time he has also been a trustee of Bioregional, and though calling himself just a ‘very, very keen gardener’ he helped set up the Lavender project over 10 years ago.
Lawrie Derham, in his 60s, joined a little later on. A self employed electronics engineer, who drives a Morris minor he’s had since 1973 and reckons is good for another 200,000 miles, he remembers carrying grasshoppers round in match boxes and feels ‘its so sad kids aren’t allowed to go over the common get lost and be back for tea.’ He got into the scheme after coming along one day and being inspired by the thought of building a contraption in his shed to distill lavender oil.
Two men who have lived in the same area all their lives, seen it change, seen much that they love vanish, and who decided that they would, as laurie puts it ‘do our bit to stop things getting any worse’. They have no special skills beyond willingness to work hard.
And work hard they did. 10 years ago, Roger started off by putting ads in all the local papers and flyers through endless doorways, letting the community know he was looking for lavender plants growing in people’s gardens for more than 20-30 years. Mostly old people replied, from whom they selected the seven most promising locations across the borough, visited and sheared off sackfulls of clippings, from which they hoped to reproduce lavender that was as close to the strains (Lavendula Angustifolia) grown here in the plant’s heyday.
The next stage could have stopped many less determined. In the centre of Carshalton, a district of Mitcham, stands a vast patch of allotments. However, one third of the field, covering around three acres, lay unused, covered in dense brambles and all manner of flytipped detritus. Roger and his colleagues had managed to persuade the council to let them use the area, but they need to first clear it, and then plant it with the many thousands of lavender bushed needed to get the project running.
They found the answer to both the physical labour needed, and the space and time to propagate the cuttings into dwarf bushes at the local prison, which happened to have for run a horticultural project as a way of providing stimulus and possible income for the prisoners. ‘We wanted to get involved and connected with local people,’ explains Roger modestly, ‘and we thought there’s a welter of local people up there doing nothing’. The fact remains, not many people would have thought of turning to prisoners for help.
Over the following couple of years the project took Roger’s cuttings and grew them into 2500-3000 immature lavender bushes. And over the same time a number of prisoners spent about 8 months clearing away the brambles and rubbish so that they could lay out the lines of lavender. ‘For three months it was back to back bonfires’ remembers Roger.
Then, having set out the rows and sown the plants, and thanks to their unlikely pairing of pensioners and prisoners, they were ready to go.
Lavender is an easy enough crop to grow. It’s perennial, hardy and the biggest risk to it is from over watering. The soil in the allotment fields is, like the soil all around SE London, chalky. Dig down a metre and its solid chalk, so water runs straight off. The work, therefore is mostly maintenance. Removing the worst of the weeds. Mowing between the rows. Keeping the grass short around the plot. Picking off the Rosemary Beetle, the beautiful looking, yet highly damaging pest.
And then once the harvest is over, cropping the bushes back, and shearing the year’s growth off ready for winter. Throughout the year, therefore, in whatever free time they have, Roger, Laurie and a group of 12 or so other volunteers give of their time to keep the lavender fields going.
The main work is at harvest time, in late July. Harvesting has to happen quite fast. Lavender is most likely to spoil is once it has been picked. Ideally it should be picked when dry, because if wet it tends to rot.
Once harvested, the majority of the crop is turned into oil. Despite Laurie’s undoubted talents in his workshop, so far the scale of his distilling machines are only up to demonstrating what can be done. Whatever amount they wish to turn to saleable lavender oil (last year around 70 per cent) is sent away to nearby facilities capable of extracting the oil from the plant.
The rest is also sold so as to finance the ongoing running of the project, and Laurie is always coming up with new ways of using the crop. Yes there are fresh and dried lavender sprigs and bags of dried buds for scented pouches, all sold through the local community centre by adults with learning difficulties, another example of the group seeing community and opportunity where most only see problems. But Laurie has also packaged up his own bags of seeds, and, as he shows me with some pride, his own range of lavender toothpicks, fashioned from the dried stalks. A man driving a 39 year old Morris is not one to let things go to waste.
Toys for the boys
Beyond toothpicks and homemade sills, the short history of their harvests has also seen rapid development as regards tool use. The first harvest happened three years after the bushes were put down, and took the 12 volunteers two weekends. But they were using sickles.
By the following year, they’d enlisted the help of a team on the agricultural machinery development course at Cranfield University led Dr James Brighton, also consultant engineer to Channel 4’s “Scrap-heap Challenge” . The team built them a harvester from all manner of used bits of rotorvator and other recycled odds and ends. ‘Our prototype’ Roger calls it. The ‘comedy harvester’ chips in Laurie.
After four harvests this was also replaced, now by a machine designed for harvesting tea. Fitted with a circular blade and a fan, you walk it down the rows, cutting the heads, which get blown into a sack behind. What once took 12 men two weekends now takes 3 hours.
Not that Roger and Laurie are great proselytisers for speed and technological progress. Much of our short time together is spent philosophizing with a stick of lavender drooping appropriately from one of their mouths. There’s something of the Pete and Dud about the way they talk, except they do much more than sit on a bench at the zoo, and they make a lot of sense. Global warming, the loss of childhood, man’s surrender to the machine, the farce of modern education. We cover it all and much more.
Its when they talk of their time in the fields and chatting to the other allotment holders they come alive. Stories of the hard working Iranians clearing away brambles for their own plot, the young family who come en masse every weekend, baby and all, or the old man and his tortoise. Their stories become like parables, told with their gentle south London burr. The more we come back to they land they remind me, the more we come back to each other.
No wonder then, that the high point of their year is the open harvest weekend. Each year, in late july they invite the local community (and anyone interested from further a field) to come and help with the harvest. It’s a simple pick your own, five pound a bucket affair, but as awareness of the project has grown, so has the event’s popularity.
Last year between 3-4,000 people came along over the weekend. Several hundred people from all across the area. Just to pick lavender, watch Laurie demonstrate his prized still, and perhaps enjoy the community barbecue and a spot Laurie’s lavender bread. ‘We get people phoning up wanting to do something,’ explains Laurie. ‘and we say, only if its directly related to lavender. Face painting and morris dancing! If that happened Roger and I would be out like a dose of salts.’
Unwanted sideshows are not the only negative consequence of bringing their work to a wider audience. With so many people attending their open days, the insurance company wouldn’t insure them unless people were clearly warned of the supposed risks. So they stuck up a sign that read, ‘Warning: this field may contain bees’.
This is nothing, however, compared to the threat they faced at the beginning of this year. As part of Labour’s schools programme, every secondary school in the country is being refurbished or rebuilt. And despite promoting itself as ‘green thinking’, their local council planned to build a school right on top of their lavender fields.
They hadn’t counted on the amount of support this would generate for Roger and Lawrie in the community. With the help of the Local Guardian and Garden News the team started the Save Carshalton Lavender Campaign. Over the coming months they raised a petition amongst local people and kept the story in the headlines of the local newspapers.
After several months, reeling from the negative publicity, the council backed down. And Carshalton became a yet more known, yet more loved member of its community, while also cementing its relationship with the other allotment holders, who had also stood to lose their own plots but for the group’s concerted campaign.
The acclaim has only grown. In May they won the Observer’s Conservation project of the year. Since then says Laurie, the phone has rung and rung, with groups across the country keen to see if they can replicate their success.
For Roger, Laurie and the other volunteers, it’s welcome, if time-consuming, attention. Right now they have more pressing needs. 26,000 plants producing 6-700 kilos of cut flower to turn into 6-8 litres of oil take looking after. And the project may generate £4-5,000 in a good year, just enough to keep it ticking over, but they could do with a new store. A new threshing machine. And a chance to build Laurie’s dream of an on site distillery, enabling them to make their own oil. But most of all, just time to be in the fields.
I only spend an hour or two there, but it’s a magical time I won’t forget. In its simple way it seems to hold so many answers. Laurie tells me of sitting down with some homemade lavender bread, cheese and a pint of beer amongst the rows so the lavender was head high and the bees were buzzing around, and being utterly at peace. Roger smiles, smiling at the hours they spend in the field ‘like grumpy old men, putting the world to rights’.
It’s what you’ve got to do,’ he tells me. ‘You can’t go on doing what isn’t working and generally buggering things up. Do something different. Do something to help.’