If you were traveling south of London in the 18th or 19th centuries, the countryside would have been swathed in purple flowers come summer. Surrey county used to be the world capital of lavender production, and today a handful of farmers are trying to restore the region's forgotten heritage.
We recently visited Mayfield Lavender, a 25-acre family-run farm less than 15 miles from central London, where their fields of organically-grown lavender are free for all to visit. Walking between the thick purple rows at dusk, the air hummed softly with the sound of bees collecting nectar. At a time when bee populations are threatened, these 25 acres are an extraordinary refuge.
As the economy declined in the early 20th century and lavender products fell out of fashion, Surrey's lavender fields began to disappear. Much of the land was developed into homes, but Mayfield stands where lavender fields once stood. The chalky free-draining soil of the North Downs is said to be ideal for the flower's cultivation.
After Mayfield harvests the lavender at the end of summer, they use a traditional steam process — chemical-free — to distill the lavender into oil. Lavender oil is used as an anti-inflammatory and antiseptic, and it's known for its soothing qualities.
Mayfield has a little outdoor cafe on the edge of its fields, where you can eat lavender cakes and sip lavender tea. The adjacent gift shop sells all the requisite lavender goodies, too, from soaps to drinks. Since it's free to visit the fields, dropping a few coins on a souvenir feels a lot more like leaving a thank you gift to farmers Lorna and Brendan, whose work is appreciated by many more than the bees.