The story of one of our best-loved flowers
Lavender has been growing in Norfolk for the best part of 2,000 years, and it’s now considered relatively commonplace - but there was a time when it was (literally) the preserve of kings and queens...
Drive from King’s Lynn to Hunstanton at the moment and you’ll be overwhelmed by the fields of rich, aromatic purple abundance at Norfolk Lavender in Heacham. It’s a magnificent scene that captures the true beauty of a glorious English summer day, showcasing one of the few therapeutic plants which are genuinely effective at relaxing, calming, soothing and balancing the mind, body and spirit. Lavender is now relatively commonplace, but there was a time when a mere 500g of it (which is around the same weight as three apples) would have cost you more than a month’s wages.
It may already have been growing in Norfolk, but lavender certainly came to our attention when the Romans arrived in 43AD. Soldiers usually carried a first aid kit of herbs with them, and wherever the conquering armies settled they’d introduce a variety of plants such as rosemary, parsley, sage, thyme and fennel - and lavender.
In addition to having a love of building straight roads, the Romans were also aware of lavender’s special properties. They used it as an insect repellent, burned it in honour of their gods, and used it as a base for massage oils. Even its very name pays tribute to the plant’s medicinal properties, ultimately deriving from the Latin verb ‘lavare’ (to wash) - and by the 1500s lavender was firmly established as the standard herb of cleanliness and calm.
It was used in virtually every room of the house - hung next to clothes to prevent them from moth damage, scattered in beds to deter vermin, placed in bowls to freshen the air, and mixed with charcoal to clean teeth.
In fact, when Walter Raleigh brought a strange plant called tobacco back from the country that would eventually become the USA, lavender was used to make it more appealing, whether you were smoking it or inhaling it.
Lavender was considered so exclusive that it became something of a royal tradition. Charles VI of France insisted on having lavender herbal pillows wherever he went, Queen Elizabeth I demanded fresh lavender flowers every day of the year, Louis XIV bathed in scented lavender water, and Queen Victoria used a lavender-based deodorant.
During the 17th century lavender oil was used to disguise the horrible smell of soap, and when the Great Plague devastated the country thieves would often rob victims of the pandemic while wearing bags of a lavender-based vinegar - assuming it protected them from infection.
Even as late as the early 20th century lavender was being used to treat injured soldiers in the First World War as the demand for disinfectants and antiseptics totally outstripped supply - but there was a cloud on the horizon.
Increasing urban development and food production saw most of the country’s lavender fields ploughed up, but in a corner of west Norfolk a passionate gardener called Linn Chilvers decided to turn the tide. Teaming up with Francis Dusgate of Fring Hall in 1932, he planted around 13,000 on six acres of land at Heacham in less than three weeks - and Norfolk Lavender was born. The business now covers almost 100 acres and is the finest lavender farm in England, attracting visitors from around the world and using its essential oil in a vast range of beauty and lifestyle products.
It relieves tension, tiredness and depression. It helps with aches and pains, skin problems, bites, stings and burns. It smells fantastic and it tastes delicious. It’s been part of our lives for hundreds of years and it’s one of the most beautiful sights on the local landscape. Let’s face it - what’s not to love about lavender?