It is widely believed that lavender first originated from the Mediterranean, the Middle East and India, around 2500 years ago. It’s known that the Egyptians made perfumes with lavender and when Tutankhamun’s tomb was opened, traces of lavender were found and its scent could still be detected.
Lavender is thought to have been originally introduced to the UK several thousand years ago by the Romans. Being a natural antiseptic, it was used amongst other things to dress battle wounds. In fact, the Romans had many uses for the plant and they employed it to help repel insects, to cook and to wash with. Interestingly, the English word, lavender, is thought to derive from the Latin word to wash, ‘lavare’. Some lavender aficionados have disputed this and advocate that the word lavender comes instead from the earliest spelling of the word, ‘livendula’ meaning livid or bluish in Latin.
Lavender is one of the oldest perfumes used in England and in the 1500’s, Queen Elizabeth I used it both as a perfume and in her tea to treat migraines. By the time of The Great Plague in 1665, it was even thought to help protect people from becoming infected and to cure those with it.
Over the coming centuries, the use of perfume became increasingly popular and so lavender has remained favoured for its fragrance, as well as its natural healing properties, ever since.
The History of Lavender in Hitchin
Hitchin can boast a unique heritage of lavender growing, owing to its rich history of cultivating this beautiful plant, dating back over hundreds of years. It was as early as the 1500s that Hitchin established its reputation as a lavender growing region and it became one of only two major growing areas in the country. At that time, lavender emerged as an increasingly popular form of medication and perfume, making it a much sought-after commodity.
In the 1760’s Hitchin’s association with lavender grew when local pharmacist, Harry Perks acquired an apothecary which he ran as a chemist and druggist. The business was further developed when his son, Edward started to grow lavender commercially in the surrounding area. At its peak, there were over 100 acres of lavender grown in Hitchin.
In the latter part of the 19th century Harry’s grandson Samuel, forged a partnership with his assistant, Charles Llewellyn and as Perks and Llewellyn, they established a countrywide reputation for their lavender products. The excellent quality of their products attracted a series of awards and secured their future as a landmark feature of Hitchin’s high street for around 200 years. It’s still possible to see an accurate replica of the Perks and Llewellyn shop in our museum, which has been kindly entrusted to us by the Hitchin Historical Society.
Hitchin was also home to the oldest independent pharmaceutical company in the UK, Ransoms. Its creator was William Ransom who, in the mid 1800s worked tirelessly to build a business that became the focal point for much of Hitchin and helped to safeguard the growth of lavender in the area. William Ransom distilled the lavender for Perks & Llewellyn and the resulting product was so good that, in 1851, Queen Victoria’s train made a stop at Hitchin so that he could present the Queen with a bottle of essential oil.
Sadly, by the 1960’s, escalating operating costs along with increased competition from France and high taxes in the UK, saw the local lavender industry, which had played such a pivotal role in the town of Hitchin for hundreds of years, head into decline.
The tradition of lavender growing in Hitchin has since seen a revival thanks to the decision made by Alec and Zoë Hunter to introduce lavender to their fields here at Cadwell Farm. They planted their first lavender rows in the year 2000, alongside a variety of arable crops which they still continue to grow. Initially, the lavender was grown for agricultural purposes so that the essential oil from its harvested flowers could be sold. However, several years after the lavender had been planted, it became apparent that there was broadening interest in the project so they began opening up the farm to the public and now get tens of thousands of visitors each summer while the fields are in bloom.
Nowadays, the farm has over 35 miles of lavender which visitors are welcome to explore, as well as a wide range of products derived from its fields that are sold nationally and internationally. Hitchin Lavender can even count Queen Elizabeth II as a recipient after she was presented her with a bouquet of lavender and essential oil from its fields during a visit to Hitchin in her Diamond Jubilee year. A replica of this bouquet can be seen in the farm’s museum.
Since 2012, the lavender fields have been run and managed under the name of Hitchin Lavender by the next generation of the Hunter family, Tim and wife Maria Noel. They’ve made it their mission to nurture the first few rows of plants into the miles of lavender seen at Cadwell Farm today and are passionate about ensuring that Hitchin’s lavender legacy continues to live on.