16 July 2017

Laura the Explorer: Castle Farm Lavender, Kent

For a few weeks each year, passengers on South Eastern trains between London and Sevenoaks are treated to a cacophony of purple as the track-side lavender fields bloom. Cast your eyes left as you emerge from the tunnel, and various shades of mauve whoosh past almost too fast to take in.

The fields are part of Castle Farm Lavender - hard to believe, given that the farm itself is situated about 4km away in Shoreham, but it claims to be the UK's largest lavender farm, covering 110 (non-sequential) acres.

The farm shop is open all year round, but for a few special weeks in the summer, visitors can take tours of the lavender fields while they're in bloom. When these tours take place varies depending on the weather, as the harvest time varies from year to year.

You'll know when you're getting near to the farm - the posh houses of Otford and the Kentish green fields give way to blankets of colour on the hillside opposite, row upon purple row swooping down into the valley. From up here, the extent of the lavender farm is impressive - and it's only a small fraction of its actual coverage.

Take the narrow farm track down the hill and you'll end up at The Hop Shop, the farm shop at the epicentre of the violet. Wood-clad on the outside, the interior of the shop is done up like a barn, all wooden beams and the like. It's part farm-shop, part upmarket gift emporium -- you can get your teeth into anything from lavender ice cream to various chutneys, jams and cakes, as well as buying jewellery, scarves and ornaments. The farm's main draw may be the lavender, but it's home to beef cattle too, so get yourself a fresh meat joint for your Sunday roast.

On the tour days, the barn is open as an extension of the shop, selling even more lavender products - honeys, cheeses, shortbread, oils and body creams. It's also where you can get yourself a ticket for the tour. You can't book in advance so it's well worth turning up way ahead of your planned tour, as they do sell out quickly. Once you've got your ticket, grab yourself a drink from the coffee cart while you wait for the tour to begin.

The tours head out of the farm, over a rather quaint stone bridge, and into two adjoining fields, which you'll visit one at a time, hearing about the crops in each, how they're harvested, and how they vary from each other. Many of the fields are actually lavandin - lavender's antithesis if you will, despite the fact that they look identical to the untrained eye. Rather than sending you to sleep, it's a stimulant. It's lighter in colour, and produces larger quantities of essential oils.

There's plenty of time for photos too, if you're only here for that all-important lavender selfie, or feel the urge to run up and down the rows like Theresa May's more colourful cousin.

The tour also gives you a chance to see the distillery process in action. In a farmyard that looks like any other - tractors, uneven ground, bales of hay - a rather special barn sits in one corner. Outside the barn, a high-sided trailer is parked, a lid place over its entirety. Attached to that lid is an oversized straw, coming out of the top of the trailer and disappearing through the wall into the barn.

The lavender is effectively steamed until it sweats out all its little juicy bits, which then rise to the ceiling of the trailer like little ethereal lavender ghosts and get sucked along the giant straw like choc chips in a milkshake, before landing in a giant vat where further science-y things happen, and BAM, you've got yourself some lavender oil. (Disclaimer: this may not have been the exact words our lovely tour guide Sandy used to explain the process, but the essence is the same).

This board in the distillery barn keeps track of the annual yield by litres of essential oil produced.
And there you have it - lavender being grown and harvested on a mass scale right here in Kent. Who needs Provence, eh?

FYI:The Castle that Castle Farm refers to is Lullingstone Castle, now a separate entity, but placed firmly on my must-visit list now that I'm back around these parts for good.

The Hop Shop at Castle Farm, Redmans Lane, Shoreham, Kent, TN14 7UB. Tours are £5-£6 per adult, check times on website.

Scribbling Lau is now on Facebook. You can also find me on Twitter and Instagram (where I'll be posting lavender photos for a long while yet.

1 comment: