And lavender, whose spikes of azure bloom shall be, ere-while,
in arid bundles bound to lurk admist the labours of her loom,
and crown her kerchiefs with mickle rare perfume."
William Shenstone The School Mistress 1742
Admittedly that quote did not jump into my head the minute I thought about lavender, more at the end of my fingertips on googling 'quotes about lavender.' But my 'azure bloom' was harvested and 'in arid bundles bound' because lavender really captured my heart again this year...and it seems an age ago now that we all basked in that glorious Summer of 2013 doesn't it.
I bought a copy of Sally Festing's little book The Story of Lavender having come across it as I searched for copies of her biography of Gertrude Jekyll, and when it arrived I was lured in by the first page...
'When we first moved to South London I became interested in lavender. This is commuter land, mopped up into the metropolis and planted with the ubiquitous suburban cherry trees. People come and go; one town, one village, slides almost imperceptibly into the next. But it was not always like this. Croydon, Beddington, Wallington, Cheam, Carshalton and Sutton used to be highly individual. One thing however, they had in common: all grew lavender, when in the wake of modernisation, the innocent plant fled from Mitcham.'
Well I grew up in Mitcham, moved to Wallington, to a house opposite Beddington Park and on the banks of the River Wandle when I was eleven, and daily travelled through Carshalton and Sutton to arrive at school in Cheam, so these places all have 'me' in common too, and lavender a scent that holds vivid childhood memories for me, our Mitcham garden was full of it.
Now that I have read the book I can see why my annual attempts at making lavender water failed miserably. Adding the flowers to a bottle of water was always going to be a brown and putrid disappointment...what I needed was a still-room.
'Court ladies whiled away the hours in their still-rooms amongst bunches of drying flowers and herbs, rows of mortars and pestles, fixatives and exotic spices, arranged on long wooden shelves...they powdered, mixed and stilled, transforming the summer's harvest into moth-bags, sweet waters, pot pourris, sweet-bags, pomanders, wash-balls, sachets, herb-pillows, tussie-mussies, vinegars and teas...'
I think I might want a still-room.
It may be a conglomerate now but there was certainly a real sense of identity to Mitcham that I remember well, growing up there in the 1950s and early 1960s, though sadly this vision had long gone...
'In every direction the low hillsides of the farm are swept with bloomy pastel tints of reapers in the fields. As the day wears on, the fragrance rises like incense in the air, wandering tribes of paper-white butterflies drift over the fields and in the clear depths of the blue sky, larks descant the joy of life.'
Countless hours spent at Primary school, being taught the significance of the town crest which included sprigs of lavender, and the colour cropped up everywhere, even a thread of it on my old Mitcham Grammar school scarf, which still sits in the scarf drawer and somehow I can't bear to throw it away.
Sally Festing's book at 100 pages is readable and informative, and knowing so many of the places she mentioned made it even more so. Acres and acres of land in Mitcham devoted to the growing of lavender, big business in the nineteenth and early twentieth century and Queen Victoria a huge fan and a visitor. With the Wandle nominated the 'hardest worked river of its size in the realm,' it all made Mitcham and its environs a prosperous and thriving town, set within what sounds like an enchanting patchwork quilt of a landscape...
'Blue from the ripe lavender; red and brown from the herbs; rich dark yellow from the wheat; pale yellow and greens of various casts, from ripe and unripe barley and oats; purple from seed clovers; and deep brown from the fallow fields.'
As for my Lavender 'Munstead' plants from that £1.99 packet of seed, they are still doing well, now out in the nursery bed, all growing very nicely in their little pots and braced for winter.
However they are still babies and after so much hard work, and with the greenhouse not ready for habitation yet, I am completely neurotic about losing them, so they snuggle under fleece at the slightest mention of frost.
Anyone else have a good lavender year...