‘MY SCHOOL TEACHER IN­SPIRED ME WITH A LOVE OF WILD FLOW­ERS’

Romy Fraser, Founder of Neal’s Yard Reme­dies

Country Homes & Interiors - - MY KIND OF COUNTRY -

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.

PER­FECT PASTIMES…

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.

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