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The Story of Norfolk Lavender


Welcome to Norfolk Lavender Trading, an established family business in Heacham, that is the oldest full time Lavender Farm in England.

The varieties of Lavender we grow have been specially selected to produce the finest oil, which is distilled in July and August in our distillery.

We are open all year except for Christmas Day, Boxing Day and New Year’s Day




Caley Mill, the home of Norfolk Lavender, was originally built in 1864, as a flour grinding mill, serving the local community with flour for their bread. It was built of our local Carrstone, in an elaborate style, by the Le Strange family, who had originally come to England from France, when William the Conqueror won the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Their family crest is let in to the tower at the front of the building. It is an ornate style of ‘Victorian Gothic’ architecture, showing the wealth of the Le Strange Family.

The Domesday Book records a mill having been on the site, using water power from the river running alongside. Heacham itself is much older than Domesday, as Roman and Neolithic finds have proved. The most ancient surviving building, however, is the 12th century church, with the oldest church bell in East Anglia and a memorial to Pocahontas who married John Rolfe, son of the squire of Heacham, and a member of John Smith’s expedition to Virginia in 1614. Although the village once boasted a safe harbour, it has always been an agricultural community in which the mill played an important part.

Like other ancient buildings, Caley Mill has kept abreast of time. Originally as a corn mill, with barred windows, recalling the Bread Riots of the early 19th century. Then, after 1918, it was used to grind and store cattle cake. In 1923 it was suggested that the great 12 foot diameter iron water wheel (now, alas! no more) might generate electricity for Heacham village. During the depression, the mill fell into disuse until, in the mid 1930’s, it became the home of Norfolk Lavender.


Just as many stately homes have their early beginnings with one man and his vision, here was a man with a burning desire to grow lavender on a commercial scale. He was the son of a botanist and nurseryman. He was called Linnaeus (Linn) Chilvers, and he planned to re-lay the foundations of a great English tradition of perfumery, which had virtually been eradicated through the destruction of older lavender plantations in the south of England, at Mitcham and elsewhere, by disease and building development.


Lavender is a hardy plant, and a native of coastal regions of the Mediterranean, favouring well drained alkaline soil and a sunny position. Linn Chilvers was right when he concluded that North West Norfolk was a great place to grow lavender, having low average rainfall, higher than average sunshine and light well drained soil. Some local farmers believed, wrongly, that lavender would impoverish the soil, but Francis ‘Ginger’ Dusgate of nearby Fring Hall, thought Linn’s plan worthy of experiment.

So in 1932 the two men entered a partnership to grow and distil lavender. Ginger provided six acres of land and Linn supplied the 13,000 plants. Over a period of 18 days, with the help of three men and a boy the first field was planted at the total cost of £15. In the summer of 1933 the lavender flowers were harvested by hand and taken by horse and cart to the railway station in Heacham. The sacks of flowers went by train to Long Melford in Suffolk for distillation to extract the oil. The brave venture attracted much publicity at the time.

The partnership agreement dated April 26th 1932 stated: ‘Francis Edwin Dusgate of Fring Hall near Docking in the County of Norfolk, Esquire and Linnaeus Chilvers of Hunstanton in the same County, Nurseryman’ should plant 6acres of land (to be provided by F E D) with Lavender (to be provided by L C) with a view to the production of lavender oil for commercial purposes.’

Linn was the ‘master of lavender’ he propagated plants to give the very finest oils. There are several varieties that were bred at Caley Mill, Number 4 and 5 that give us our very special essential oil but are not for sale. As well as Heacham Blue, Folgate, Imperial Gem and Miss Katherine, which can be bought when available.

As Linn now needed more land to grow lavender he asked the Royal Family if he could rent some land on the nearby Sandringham Estate. He was familiar with the Estate as he had helped in the gardens of the House. He was granted 50 acres of land, to rent, on the Estate and his own distillery followed in the barns at Fring. The stills were purchased in1936 in France, second hand, made of copper and they distilled all the lavender initially in Fring, and then here, at Caley Mill.


Among the visitors, to Heacham in those early days, was a chemist called Horace Avery. He had a particular interest in perfumery, having worked for a French perfumer, and he told Linn that he had a formula for a lavender perfume made for George 1V in the early nineteenth century. They agreed that the partnership would use the formula, and for many years Mr. Avery came to mix the essences himself, until on his death the secret was purchased outright by Norfolk Lavender. The lavender perfume was bottled by Violet and Ivy, Linn’s sisters, and sold in mere hundreds from a kiosk, and at local chemists.

In time Caley Mill came up for sale and Ginger bought it for Norfolk Lavender, while Linn ran the business. By 1936 he was supplying Yardley’s Lavender with oil for their products. Nowadays we don’t supply anyone with oil as we use it in our own beautiful products, which are sold in the shop at Caley Mill, and other outlets, or sent out by mail order.

During the harvest of the Sandringham fields in 1936, Queen Mary, came to see the distillation of the lavender, she sat on a high backed chair to watch, before being presented with some oil and returning to Sandringham House. In 1953 Linn wanted to ensure the business was in safe hands, and his remaining sister Ivy provided for should anything happen to him. He appointed close friend Adrian Head to be his trustee and a director of the company. Adrian, in many ways was the son that Linn never had. In fact Linn died unexpectedly a few weeks later and the Head family ran the business, father then son, keeping the tradition of growing and harvesting lavender alive.


This proved a difficult time for the business having lost its driving force, but it had to flourish to provide for Ivy. Tom Collison who had been working for the company for five years, was appointed Managing Director. Adrian became Chairman, until 1971 when he took up a Government Appointment. Ann, Adrian’s wife, then took an active role in the running of the business, most importantly designing the company’s expanding range of products, as well as being Chairman from 1971 to 1996. When Tom retired in 1977, Ann and Adrian’s son, Henry, became Managing Director, and ran the business until 2009.

The business was then sold to the present owners, who have made amazing additions and improvements to the site, firstly, the Farm shop, and Farmer Fred’s Play Barn, closely followed by the Animal Gardens and Play Park, which includes a Hornbeam Maze. There is a flourishing Plant Centre, selling Lavender in various varieties as well as herbs and other plants, and pots. We also hold the National Collection of Lavenders, showcasing 200 varieties, some of which are very rare. The Gift Shop is a wonderland of gifts, cards, bags, toys as well as our beautifully fragrant Lavender Products using our exceptional essential oil.

Our Farm Shop sources Local Foods and Drink keeping the carbon footprint as low as possible.

The Lavender Tea Room has a varied seasonal menu, providing breakfast, lunch and afternoon tea, with our delicious lavender, fruit or cheese scones, baked daily in the kitchen.

We have recently planted a new lavender field adjacent to Caley Mill and when the lavender is flowering we take people to the field on a guided tour, giving them the full lavender experience.


We grow a number of varieties commercially, some are propagated from the original plants that Linn Chilvers developed here in the 1930’s. All our field plants are propagated from cuttings to make sure they are true to the parent plant. This ensures that the oil is unvaried from year to year.



Harvest begins when the lavender comes into full bloom. It is then that the oil yield is at its highest. The weather plays a vital part. Sun is essential to enable the plant to make its oil. Heavy rain at harvest time can be a disaster, reducing the yield by more than half as the damp causes the florets to turn brown and drop from the stem. At Norfolk Lavender the harvest lasts about five or six weeks and usually begins in July, depending on the amount of rainfall and sunshine in the preceding months.


Originally the plants were planted in the fields in rows five foot apart, with a gap of four foot between the bushes in the row. This allowed the plant to fully develop and made cultivation easy. Harvesting was carried out by a team of about 40 women using a sickle-shaped, serrated edged knife. The blooms must be gathered at their best, so cutters worked long, back breaking hours. This way of harvesting continued until 1964, when mechanisation finally came in. Because lavender grows in a dome shape, devising an efficient harvester was difficult. The first machine, made from an old cultivator frame and using an eight-horsepower engine, chugged along the rows in 1964. Further experimental machines were tried but they often lacked sufficient power uphill.


Our first purpose built harvester was developed by local engineers in 1971. It worked much like a combine harvester. One man would drive it and two men standing on the back packed the flowers into sacks as they were harvested. This was used until 2002 and it is on display in the plant centre at Caley Mill.


Now we have an attachment that clips on to a tractor, and the harvest falls into a hopper at the back. It is then taken to the distillery to have the oil extracted from the blooms.


The original distillery was in Fring, in barns on the farm, but once Caley Mill was established as Norfolk Lavender headquarters, it was brought down here. Linn took himself off to France and brought back 2 huge stills, which were used constantly each year until 2009 when we moved into the 21st century and invested in a modern electric still.

The fragrance of lavender is contained in its oil, which the plant produces and stores in tiny glands at the base of each floret.

The amount and quality of the oil depends on the particular type of lavender and on the amount of sunshine, especially just before and during harvest.


In order to make perfumery products the oil must be separated from the plant material, and this is done by steam distillation. The still is loaded and steam is passed through the harvested flowers, this extracts the oil and the mixture of steam and oil passes through the condenser, as it condenses the oil and water enter the separator tank and the oil, which floats on the water, can be tapped off. The spent lavender is then carted away to be composted.


The oil is stored in aluminium flasks, all separately labelled with the date and variety of lavender, for 2 years before it is ready to use. The pure essential oil has many uses, it will help you to sleep, keep insects and moths away, soothe minor burns, as an anti-septic for cuts and bruises and an aid to healing. Some people have found relief from arthritis by massaging joints with lavender oil. (always test for allergic reaction when using any product for the first time)


In times gone by when the old stills were in use, the men would ensure the still was filled to capacity by climbing in and treading down the lavender. This happened while another worker was forking in the flowers, the ‘fine’ for wounding the treader was ten shillings (50p) paid to the injured man. A greater risk, perhaps, was a bee finding its way up a trouser leg!

Different lavenders produce different fragrances and quality of oil and the various oils are used accordingly in all our products, which are available in the gift shop and by mail order.


Lavender is one of the best tempered and least demanding of plants, only asking for well-drained alkaline soil and plenty of sunshine. Once established it requires no watering (unless it is in a pot)

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