KITCHEN TA­BLE TAL­ENT

Country Living (UK) - - Contents - Words by CAR­O­LINE WHEATER pho­to­graphs by ALUN CALLENDER

Cel­e­brat­ing home-grown skills, we meet peo­ple mak­ing the most of their hobby. This month: the perfumer

In this se­ries cel­e­brat­ing home-grown skills, we meet peo­ple mak­ing the most of their hobby, whether they’re earn­ing from their kitchen ta­ble or launch­ing a fully fledged busi­ness. Dis­cover, too, dif­fer­ent ways to fol­low in their foot­steps

ON A BLUS­TERY AU­TUMN MORN­ING, Dom Bridges walks the two streets from his home in Cliftonville, Margate, in Kent, to his shop over­look­ing the seafront on Walpole Bay. The surf bub­bles on the shore and clumps of glis­ten­ing brown sea­weed clus­ter on the beach. “Six years ago, I was earn­ing £12,000 a day; now it’s £1,000 a month, and I’m hap­pier than I’ve ever been in my life,” says Dom, as he raises the blinds at the win­dows of Haeck­els, the per­fumery and skin­care em­po­rium he opened in 2013, which is named after the 19th-cen­tury Ger­man nat­u­ral­ist Ernst Haeckel.

As the strong coastal light floods in, it il­lu­mi­nates what looks like an apothe­cary’s shop of old. Stop­pered am­ber glass bot­tles con­tain­ing beard oil and body lo­tion are dis­played in an­tique oak cab­i­nets. More bot­tles and small pots filled with creams and salves sit on wall shelves, while clear glass cloches cover scented can­dles and per­fume bot­tles to help con­cen­trate the fra­grances. To­wards the back of the small store, a Heath Robin­son-style con­struc­tion of glass flasks, test tubes and beakers is part of the in­fus­ing and dis­till­ing para­pher­na­lia Dom uses to trans­form the magic in­gre­di­ent in most of his hand­made Haeck­els prod­ucts – lo­cally har­vested brown sea­weed. Some 25 ki­los dry weight of ser­rated wrack (Fu­cus ser­ra­tus) a year to be pre­cise, col­lected two to three times a week from the beaches around Walpole Bay, un­der li­cence from Nat­u­ral Eng­land and Thanet District Coun­cil.

The scene is one of pure the­atre and per­haps not a mil­lion miles from 40-year-old Dom’s pre­vi­ous life as an ad­ver­tis­ing film direc­tor, based in Lon­don and fly­ing all over the world to shoot com­mer­cials for pres­ti­gious clients such as Coca-cola, O2 and Plays­ta­tion. He and his wife Jo, a pho­tog­ra­pher, first dis­cov­ered Margate on their hon­ey­moon in 2006. “We got mar­ried at The Old Light­house in Dun­geness and on the way back to Lon­don stayed at the Nay­land Rock Ho­tel in Margate. The town seemed half de­serted but looked beau­ti­ful to us and we ran around tak­ing pho­tos.”

First they bought a beach hut in the town. Then, in early 2011 and on the brink of buy­ing a house in Lon­don, they de­cided in­stead to move lock, stock and bar­rel to the Kent coast. Dom had be­come dis­il­lu­sioned with the cor­po­rate na­ture of the ad­ver­tis­ing in­dus­try, and he and Jo wanted to start a fam­ily. They liked Margate’s cre­ative at­mos­phere: “We knew we wanted to do some­thing here, but not what. We even thought about open­ing a cin­ema.” The cou­ple im­mersed them­selves in the town, go­ing for walks on the beach to mull things over (Dom be­came a vol­un­teer beach war­den, too). Slowly an idea be­gan to for­mu­late, fo­cus­ing on sea­weed. A few years ear­lier, Dom had shot a shower gel com­mer­cial in Shang­hai and learned that in China sea­weed was tra­di­tion­ally used to wash with, in a prac­tice not dis­sim­i­lar to Euro­pean tha­las­sother­apy or sea wa­ter ther­a­pies. He’d spent time in Cal­i­for­nia, too, where

plenty of small com­pa­nies make nat­u­rally de­rived beauty prod­ucts. “They are much more in tune with a health­ier way of liv­ing,” he adds.

His light­bulb mo­ment came in 2012 when he was sit­ting in a pub in Margate, lis­ten­ing to friends com­plain about the pro­lific sea­weed that thrives on Kent’s chalk reef coast. “Most sea­side towns get around 700 tonnes of sea­weed a year, but Margate gets up to 7,000 tonnes,” Dom ex­plains. “They were moan­ing about it, but I’ve al­ways liked the un­der­dog – Rocky is my favourite film. Ev­ery­one has po­ten­tial as long as they are given a chance. And that’s how I felt about sea­weed. Dream­land [Margate’s retro-in­spired amuse­ment park] was be­ing re­stored, the Turner Con­tem­po­rary Gallery was about to open, but no one was cel­e­brat­ing the beach.”

In­spired by the likes of self-taught per­fumers Jo Malone and Dip­tyque, Dom de­cided to get cre­ative in the kitchen and make some sea­weed soap for Christ­mas gifts that year. Us­ing house­hold pots and pans, he cooked up 12 bars of soap for friends, placed them in­side army kit tins with printed la­bels and gave them out. “Ev­ery­one liked the pack­ag­ing so much, they ended up dis­play­ing it rather than us­ing it,” he says, and the seed was sown. Re­al­is­ing that in­ter­est in the soaps was strong, Dom started re­search­ing the vi­ta­min-packed, skin-sooth­ing sea­weed on Margate’s beaches – on the in­ter­net, in books and by go­ing to talks given by lo­cal ex­perts.

When Jo be­came preg­nant in 2013 with their daugh­ter Dul­cie, now nearly three, Dom started to fo­cus in earnest on the evo­lu­tion of Haeck­els. As well as the soaps, he de­vel­oped a beard oil us­ing sea­weed ex­tract, nam­ing it Sailor’s Beard Oil, and a range of scented

clean-burn soy wax can­dles – all cre­ated through a process of trial and er­ror. As the kitchen got messier, Jo sug­gested that he re­lo­cate his ‘lab’ into proper premises and he rented a for­mer café on Cliff Ter­race, in­vest­ing in a sea­weed grinder and drier, and dis­til­la­tion equip­ment. “I had £28,000 in sav­ings to get my project off the ground – I didn’t want to ask for any bank loans,” he re­calls.

At this point lo­cal Margate man Alex Verier joined Dom in the en­ter­prise and, us­ing Dom’s recipes, they made enough stock to open Haeck­els as a shop in De­cem­ber 2013, and ev­ery­thing sold out. Fired by that early suc­cess, Dom de­vel­oped a range of eau de par­fums us­ing dis­tilled ex­tracts of for­aged plants found in and around Margate – el­der­flower, black­cur­rant leaf, sea buck­thorn, dog rose, crab ap­ple, fen­nel and var­i­ous herbs. Their names are an­other clever touch, with each per­fume iden­ti­fied not by a name but by the GPS co-or­di­nates that pin­point where the orig­i­nal plant ma­te­ri­als were gath­ered. The most re­cent ad­di­tion to the Haeck­els col­lec­tion is a sea­weed-ex­tract skin­care range – face creams and body lo­tions – that took two years to come to fruition, go­ing through the of­fi­cial test­ing and cer­ti­fy­ing pro­ce­dure.

Dom’s lat­est project is as in­ven­tive as ever – a Vic­to­rian-style sauna and bathing ma­chine on Margate beach that of­fers tha­las­sother­apy treat­ments such as sea­weed wraps – and he has ac­cepted lo­cal funds that have en­abled him to move the lab into big­ger premises with a larger sea­weed grinder, dis­tillers, ovens and hot­plates needed to cre­ate the range. With Haeck­els prod­ucts now sold in up­mar­ket de­part­ment stores such as Sel­f­ridges and Har­vey Ni­chols, the busi­ness is a real suc­cess. “Why can’t a high-end brand come from a beach that peo­ple have a low opin­ion of ?” Dom says. “The big­ger story is cel­e­brat­ing the sea­side and this shop is where it starts.”

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