‘MY SCHOOL TEACHER INSPIRED ME WITH A LOVE OF WILD FLOWERS’
Romy Fraser, Founder of Neal’s Yard Remedies
Nowadays we’re used to all sorts of wild and wonderful natural ingredients in our beauty products – sea kelp, kale, even bee venom would hardly raise an eyebrow. But it wasn’t so long ago that finding a shampoo containing any sort of genuine plant extract was no easy task. Romy Fraser changed all that, blowing a breath of fresh air into the industry when she opened a small shop in Covent Garden in 1981, selling balms and lotions made from real herbs and flowers, all presented in elegant blue glass bottles. The business quickly flourished, with Neal’s Yard Remedies among the first to have its goods certified by The Soil Association. But Romy, a former teacher, always had a greater goal in mind: to set up a working farm where she could teach skills to help towards a more sustainable future. At Trill Farm near Axminster in Devon, that longheld dream is quietly taking shape. We went there to meet Romy, as well as some very inquisitive Gotland sheep…
WHERE DID YOU GROW UP? A village in Surrey near the North Downs. I loved the beech woods and the chalky downs. We had a big garden with rambling orchards, where I would pick an apple on the way to school every morning in autumn. My dad grew vegetables and we sold the surplus – a kind of forerunner to veg box schemes! We never ate processed food. I remember my mother not allowing me to have an orange ice lolly because of the colouring in it. I think that’s one of the reasons I became so interested in natural ingredients.
TELL US ABOUT TRILL… It’s 300 acres of woodland, pasture and water meadows, with a 16th-century farmhouse at its heart. There’s a lake near the house with a small island, where my five grandchildren camp out in summer. We have lots of small businesses based here – falconry, wood turning, pottery, a herb garden, soapmaking… They all make the place so creative and fun. In the Old Dairy Kitchen, our resident chef, Chris Onions, runs cooking courses and provides delicious communal lunches for everyone on the farm to enjoy. There’s also a vegetable producer, who supplies all our own needs, as well as selling to nearby restaurants, such as River Cottage. We also host a range of courses from carpentry to beekeeping, and hold suppers with talks by interesting speakers. My two
daughters, Tamsin and Lara, contribute to the running of the farm and visit often.
FAVOURITE ROOM IN YOUR HOUSE?
Well, the kitchen is where we spend a lot of time. We built the cupboards and island using larch timber from the farm. It is sun bleached with beautiful etiolated colours. I love the Blue Lias flagstones that I discovered under three layers of fitted carpets and concrete screed.
WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO START NEAL’S YARD REMEDIES?
My love for nature goes back to a wonderful primary school teacher, whose lessons prompted me to study botany A level. Then later, when I was pregnant with my first daughter, I joined a meditation and homeopathy group, where I learnt a lot. At the time I was teaching in a democratic school, Kirkdale, in Sydenham, south London. My friend Nicholas Saunders, who founded Neal’s Yard whole foods in Covent Garden, helped there. He asked if I wanted to rent a unit, and generously offered to guarantee an £18,000 bank loan. The company grew from there.
HOW DID YOU CREATE YOUR PRODUCTS?
Using suppliers and manufacturers I felt I could trust. I would purchase the best herbs and oils I could find. The finest ingredients will always make the best products – just as with food. From early on, I saw how effective herbal treatments can be, not only for first-aid situations, but also in supporting the body to recover from chronic conditions. Ten years after opening the business, I also set up our own facility to grow herbs on an acre of land in Dorset at The Springhead Trust.
WHAT IS THE ETHOS AT THE HEART OF TRILL FARM?
It is about creating a codependent community of ventures, which support each other and use practices that are in harmony with the land. Our falconer Karen Stead-dexter is a good example. Rosie, her beautiful eagle owl, not only stars in her falconry classes, but also catches rooks – which in turn helps to reduce their poaching from the vegetable garden.
HOPES AND DREAMS FOR THE FARM…
We are currently working to create an educational programme for young adults, which I hope will take root. We have run a couple of residential stays for child asylum seekers, too. We squash in as many wonderful activities for them as we can, ensuring that they also have plenty of free time to run around exploring the farmland.
GREATEST CHALLENGE OF YOUR CAREER?
Selling Neal’s Yard Remedies in 2005. I had always run the business with the aim of being a good influence in people’s lives. Suddenly it was boiled down to figures on a balance sheet. But making money to finance an educational project was why I set up the business in the first place.
FAVOURITE FRUITS OF AUTUMN…
We have miles of hedgerows at Trill that provide us with crab apples and hawthorn berries to make a wealth of preserves. And the wonderful colours of the trees at this time of year always fill me with energy.
Pottery, walking and swimming in the stream in our woods. I am also learning French. One day I hope to feel confident enough to argue my case.
HOW DO YOU LOVE TO SPEND TIME WITH FAMILY?
Chatting, eating, going for walks, and sharing a drink.
MUST-VISIT BEAUTY SPOT?
Seaton beach. Happiness is going for a swim there on a sunny day, followed by a coffee and a pastry at the Hideaway Cafe, which is tucked away on the promenade. We took our asylum seeker kids there and the owner gave them all free ice creams. Gestures of kindness like that are so important in life.
TRILL FARM, TRILLFARM.CO.UK.