My English Rows
Words Stephanie Donaldson
Photographs Toby Glanville
The lavender fields of Foxbury Farm are a fragrant landmark for anyone travelling south through the Kentish Weald – the culmination of 20 years’ work from journalist-turned farmer Jod Mitchell…
Regular travellers on the train line between London Charing Cross and the south-eastern coast of England will be familiar with a heart-lifting moment that enlivens the journey for a few weeks in July as the train emerges from the tunnel north of Sevenoaks. For a few brief seconds, we are delivered into a Kentish Provence we speed past purple fields of lavender. It can leave one feeling quite bereft if too absorbed in a book to look up at the appropriate time, or when a train passing in the opposite direction obscures the fields. The appreciation of the view becomes intensified by the all-too-short season before harvesting.
Even at speed and through a train window, lavender evokes a powerful response – the sight of the sinuous rows of purple curving round the hill is often enough to conjure up its distinctive fragrance. Our sense of smell is unique amongst the senses in that it bypasses the brain and goes straight to our emotions, frequently delivering us back to our first encounter with a particular scent. Lavender may revive childhood memories of our grandmother’s garden, a linen cupboard stacked with scented sheets, or as a favourite ingredient in ‘potion-making’. Fragrance memories are always personal to the individual and over time we add layer upon layer of these associations.
After years of admiring the lavender at a distance, I was given the opportunity to take a closer look and meet the farmer, Jod Mitchell of Foxbury Farm, to find out more about his colourful crop. We rendezvous in the farmyard next to a magnificent cast house that lies empty except for the old hop-drying and fruit-picking equipment used by earlier generations of the Mitchell family. His office is tucked into a corner of vast corrugated-iron barn across the yard, where we settle down to talk. Mitchel explains that it was his time spent in London that led him to join the revival in English lavender growing. Like many farmers’ sons, he left home as a young man, going on to establish a successful career in the city as an editor at Condé Nast, the Telegraph and the BBC. ‘I was living an urban life during the week and would come down every weekend with my wife,’ he says. ‘I needed my own project – and it wasn’t going to be the family’s commercial fruit-growing business. It wasn’t so much the crop that interested me as the family and the farm and what could be done there.’
At Foxbury Farm the land is the constant, but what is grown on it has changed, or been added to, by five successive generations of the Mitchell family. Early in the 20th century, fruit and vegetables were sent to the family’s stand at old Covent Garden by Jod’s great, great grandfather, Robert Mitchell. Since then his family have variously planted large scale orchards, grown and dried hops, had a Christmas tree plantation, established a nut plat (a cobnut plantation) and even run a geranium nursery. ‘I grew up eating fruit off trees at various stages of readiness,’ Mitchell says. ‘The main crops were apples and pears, but we also grew wonderful cherries, damsons and plums.’ Although livestock has never been a primary enterprise at Foxbury Farm, he does remember a herd of pigs living in somewhat luxurious accommodation when he was a child. Known as the Pig Palace, it was a converted Nissan-type hut that featured an insulated cork floor for added porcine comfort.
Over the years, economics have dictated that many of the traditional crops have fallen by the wayside – most of the fruit trees have gone because they were so labour intensive, foreign imports put paid to hop growing, and other crops have been tried with varying degrees of success. Now it is Jod Mitchell’s turn to make his mark upon the land, bringing with him experience of a very different lifestyle to inspire what he does now.
I looked at various crops – and of all the ones I researched, it was lavender that made the most sense,’ he says. ‘I knew it would grow well here, the right varieties of plants were available in sufficient numbers – and when I reconnected with local growers who had been growing rosemary and chamomile successfully, lavender seemed the obvious choice.’ It helped that he loved the look and smell of it, too. ‘I’ve always had a keen interest in perfume and smells,’ he says, ‘especially in the luxury world, where things are made in interesting ways by interesting people. I love the eccentricity of someone doing impractical things for improbable reasons – and if they can make it commercial as well, then I’m full of admiration. I grew up around some quite idiosyncratic people in the farming community, where people tend to share artisan characteristics. They are independent, stubborn and tend to have a clear sense of right and wrong. I admire that – I admire eccentricity in its nicest forms.’
His weekends on the farm, driving an old Series 1 Land Rover and taking the dogs out, created a determination to find a way of combining both sides of his life. ‘In the early days we grew the lavender and sold it as a crop, but having spent those years in journalism and done that daily walk past the luxury perfumiers on Jermyn Street and New Bond Street, I knew I wanted to do more than simply harvest it. In London I was mixing with incredibly demanding and exacting people at the top of their market, who used the finest materials and the best processes and ended up with something beautifully presented. It is a form of excellence. I had also observed the French talent for combining terroir and provenance in a luxury product. Historically, their wine marketing is extraordinary – they take what is basically fermented grape juice and make it an object of desire. They have a more collective way of agriculture, but that wasn’t quite right for here. Instead, we work together with our neighbours, pooling expertise and sharing the equipment, but we each do our own thing on the brand side.’
The crop is cut using a specialist lavender harvester imported from the South of France. It delivers the crop directly into a trailer, which is then driven to the still where it is parked outside the building and sealed shut so that steam can be pumped through the lavender. This releases the volatile oils into the steam, which is condensed in the still, separating the lavender oil and the water. In the process, the cut lavender loses all of its colour and is reduced to a heap of brown-grey stems that will be composted and returned to the land. At this point the oil is quite ‘raw’ and will be left to mature for a year, before it is ready to be used for the Mitchell and Peach brand of luxury fragrances, bath and body products.
‘I love the eccentricity of doing impractical things for improbable reasons…’
‘There are two sides to making these products,’ says Mitchell. ‘One is the fragrance itself, and the other is the base. Not knowing much about either in the early days, I went to people who do it all the time. For flavours and fragrances I went to Arthur Phillips who is a flavourist and fragrance creator. He has known my family for 75 years and was a trusted person who worked with us on perfecting the lavender oil. So began the long and excruciating process of formulating a fragrance that recreated the smell of freshly pinched lavender using only natural oils. That’s where this whole project started.’
That single sensory experience is the originator of everything made by Mitchell and Peach. (The ‘Peach’ in the company name reflects the strong fruity, peachy characteristic present in the angustifolia lavender that they grow.) Their first fragrance, Flora No.1, is described by Mitchell as ‘a soft floral with a distinctive punchiness that sets it apart from most lavender perfumes’.
The bases for Mitchell and Peach products are made by a specialist Yorkshire company. ‘I took them some honey from our hives with the core lavender fragrance and asked them to make something as natural as possible. We started with four products – soap, bath oil, body cream and shower wash – and went through endless variations obsessing about consistency, viscosity, transparency, fragrance levels and stability – all things I’d never thought about before. I’m sure I was a nightmare to work with, but I’ve decided that you have to be a nightmare when you are developing something or nothing happens. In particular, I wanted to formulate a hand cream that dries down quickly but still moisturises. At Condé Nast I had noticed how annoyed my colleagues were by greasy creams when they were using keyboards. You have to agonise about these details to run a successful company – it’s a rather unattractive quality, but one I admire in other people!’
Mitchell and Peach’s second fragrance, English Leaf, captures the smell of freshly cut, lush green foliage. Mitchell looked into various ways of recreating this, including the use of a spectrometer following a meadow mower to gather information about what exactly is in the air, but in the end they worked by instinct, spending weeks with their noses pressed against fresh-cut grass and leaves. ‘There’s something nostalgic about this fragrance,’ he says. ‘I don’t know whether it is the tomato leaf element – because everyone has a tomato leaf memory – or the mown grass that conjures up summer days and cricket fields.’It strikes me that few crops are capable of arousing such passion in their grower. Most of Foxbury’s lavender is grown high up on a greensand ridge to provide the right soil conditions and guarantee the good air circulation that it needs to thrive. It’s a picturesque location with big skies and expansive views over the Kentish Weald. High above our heads, the song of skylarks can be heard. ‘This crop is the culmination of 20 years of field work, during which we have continued to learn – and eventually we’ve ended up doing the right thing,’ he says. ‘The stewardship of the land is something that most farmers do instinctively: we don’t need to be told to have a hedge of a certain width, or to cut it at a particular time of year, because we have been doing it for generations. The other day my father, Ian, was marking out an area where the skylarks can nest. He didn’t need to be told to do that, he just does it.’
But for all the romantic associations and the heady fragrance, Mitchell has found that growing lavender can be tough, particularly when planting a new field. The rooted cuttings are between five and eight centimetres tall, and they are very vulnerable at this stage, especially if it is dry when they are planted. Although put in by machine, about half of them need to be adjusted, so they are effectively hand planted – no small task with 130,000 cuttings. ‘In the first few weeks they need to have damp roots,’ explains Mitchell, ‘and a dry spring for the most recent planting meant we had to hand water every one of them using tractors with water tanks. Teams of three of us walked along with hoses, giving each plant a quick squirt to keep them alive. That was pretty demoralising, but we saved most of them and any that died were replaced in the autumn. One way or another there’s an awful lot of walking around and pulling things out when you grow lavender.’
Fortunately, after the first year, lavender pretty well looks after itself – and it’s just a matter of filling in any gaps and controlling the weeds from then on in. The biggest danger for the established lavender comes from people and dogs – especially big dogs that can do permanent damage by pushing through the plants. ‘I love seeing dogs on the footpath,’ he says, ‘but I hate it when I see them cruising across the lavender rows.’
Asked what aspect of Mitchell and Peach he most loves, Mitchell replies that it’s not having to let go of ‘the sophisticated side’ of his life. ‘We recently had the Rolls Royce Owners Club here with 10 of their cars parked next to the lavender fields,’ he says. ‘The purpose of the exercise was to draw a comparison between our two brands. The idea of being bent double in a field and inspecting a grub while talking to Rolls Royce owners embodies what I actually want to do here, which is to take both sides of my life and combine them in a product of which I am proud. There’s something compelling for me about producing fragrance from our land.’ Over more than a century, each generation of the Mitchell family has made their own mark on the land at Foxbury Farm. As he sees it, Mitchell and Peach is the latest part of that much longer story.