Every summer since 2003 a deep-purple lavender bloom cloaks a remote and windswept hillside in Mid Wales, where former international journalist Nancy Durham and retired Oxford philosophy professor Bill Newton-Smith put aside the investigation of big philosophical questions and embarked on an equally meaningful journey by becoming farmers of a rare species of lavender that grows at 1100 feet. Curious to learn more about how Farmers’ Welsh Lavender was born and what is the “earthy” philosophy of farming lavender in this unusual environment, we braced the moody wintry Welsh weather and visited Nancy and Bill at their secluded farm and shop charmingly tucked away among desolate moorlands at the foothills of the Brecon Beacons.
While Nancy and Bethan showed us round the farm and introduced us to the expertly crafted range of local products from the Farmers’ shop, Bill was busy in the kitchen cooking a delicious celeriac and apple soup made with ingredients from his own vegetable garden. Sitting down for lunch with Nancy, Bill and Bethan, we engaged in an animated conversation about the Iron Curtain, illegal philosophy lectures and some of Nancy and Bill’s adventures in Central and Eastern Europe; a conversation that made us realise that the big concern in life for Bill and Nancy has shifted smoothly from “what is time?” to “what to eat tonight?”; a conversation that showed us that there shouldn’t exist a harsh contrast between abstract thinking and practical endeavours, between political struggles and personal achievements, between wanderlust and standing still.
The enriching encounter with Nancy and Bill put us in an enthusiastic frame of mind, determined to return to one of the country's most beautiful lavender farms during the summer months to see the fields in their full, deep-purple bloom and to revisit the Farmers’ wonderful team whose guiding ethos, according to Bill, is to maximize human happiness.
How did you two meet?
Nancy: We met at a party in Toronto. Bill was on sabbatical leave from Oxford University and I was a news reporter with the public broadcaster Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
What is your most vivid childhood memory?
Nancy: Going on very long trips in the family car. We always had a big boaty Chevrolet or Oldsmobile with three kids in the back, one of us asking how many more miles till we’re there. It could be a thousand to the Atlantic coast where we’d camp, eat clams and lobster on the beach, swim and look for starfish when the tide went out. In spring we’d drive the length of the eastern American states, Florida bound, to take a break from our long Canadian winters. The journeys south fascinated me. I remember following my father into a liquor store (as they were called then and still are in Canada) and seeing the “whites only” sign for a queue on one side, “coloureds” on the other. It shocked me. Growing up, my father lectured us on the evils of apartheid in South Africa and here it was, starkly, next door to us.
Bill: My most vivid childhood memory also relates to long trips in the family car. In my case it was always a dubious car needing daily maintenance en route. My father was an impoverished clergyman who could only provide us with a holiday by acting as a stand-in for a less impoverished clergyman who went on a real holiday. We went to wonderful places and had interesting, stimulating times: Boston, northern Quebec, Gaspe, Cape Breton… But getting there was sheer hell. My parents could not go more than 30 minutes without a freshly brewed pot of tea. So we would stop while my father set up a portable gas stove to boil water. This drove me and my brothers berserk. All we wanted was to move on. The frustration has left me with a lasting dislike of tea and the ritual of drinking it.
Nancy, as a journalist you have witnessed and reported on events that shaped the face of the world as we know it today. Growing up under the Communist regime in Romania, we are curious to know what was your perception of the Communist block from the other side of the Iron Curtain?
Hearing the term Iron Curtain as a child was very strange. I thought, iron curtain, where is it? What does it look like? I had no serious understanding of it at all. I do recall the campaign to prepare for nuclear war by building bomb shelters around the time of the Cuban missile crisis. We did not build one.
I made up for my ignorance later by tramping around Central and Eastern Europe as a journalist. I was greatly influenced by Bill. When I met him in 1981 he’d recently been expelled from Czechoslovakia for performing the illegal act of giving a philosophy lecture to dissident academics. In Warsaw he’d photographed the Polish paramilitary police, ZOMO, putting down peaceful protest. So he had great stories to tell, setting off my lifetime passion for travelling in challenging places.
My first foray into reporting in socialist countries was Yugoslavia at a time when no one saw the war coming. Later I would cover the breakup of the Balkans from almost every side. Next I focused on Czechoslovakia where thanks to Bill’s connections, it was easy to hook up with major players. I took typewriter ribbons and whiskey to the playwright Vaclav Havel. Many Czechs I met showed incredible patience and stamina. I once sat round a table in a private flat in Brno whilst someone typed out Orwell's 1984, then banned in the country, churning out several copies at a time with carbon paper.
I also reported from Romania and Albania after their doors were opened to journalists. It was a revelation to witness the suffering visited upon the people by both regimes.
Bill, how did your approach to the concept of time change since you published The Structure of Time?
I don’t think my approach changed except in two regards. First, I now realise that the 250 pages allocated to by my publisher were wholly inadequate for a serious answer to the question: what is time? If I had been offered 500 pages we would have been getting somewhere in answering that question. Of course this probably would have meant that no one would have persevered through the entire book. My other realisation is that people don’t want the 500 hundred page treatise: they want an answer in 50 words or less. I am still working on that challenge.
Is it true that people who have lived a lifetime together start to resemble each other?
We look at other people and sometimes do think this is true but we don’t see it in ourselves.
What is the subject that came up most frequently in your conversations throughout the years?
Nancy: I would like to say it’s about the transformation of Europe and philosophical matters, like the concept of time, and of course we’ve talked a lot about these things. But The Subject in our daily discussion revolves around what to have for dinner tonight. Bill tends an extensive kitchen garden which influences what we’ll be eating from May till November. He is a talented and adventurous cook even when his garden is not productive. He’ll call me to his study in the morning and say how about beetroot risotto tonight done X, Y or Z. There are always three choices and he always asks for my preference. It's very sweet. He does all the cooking. I do dishes.
Bill: Nancy is right. The really big question in life is: what to eat tonight? We have travelled extensively and experienced many diverse cuisines. So discussing what to eat often means reflecting on these different cultures. Having our own kitchen garden keeps us close to nature. We also forage in the countryside for mushrooms, sloes and wild herbs.
How did the idea for Farmers’ Welsh Lavender come about and what made it worth pursuing?
Nancy: This is the most accidental turn our lives have taken. In the spring of 2003 I casually told a farmer neighbour, Baden Powell, I wanted to plant some lavender. I meant a hedge like the one we’d had in our Oxford garden when Bill taught philosophy at the University there. Baden told me the Welsh government - supported by the EU - wanted farmers to diversify, but they weren’t taking the incentive so he encouraged me to apply for a grant. I succeeded and by September we’d planted an entire field of lavender. There was no business plan at all. I had merely answered the government's call to see what else might grow in rainy windswept Wales.
Our lavender grew well and initially it was just a lovely crop to tend in between my journalistic assignments. In around 2008 I was approached by interior stylist Hilary Lowe, of Damson and Slate in Pembrokeshire. She encouraged me to take it seriously and introduced me to her sister Helen who makes body creams in north Wales. Helen enthusiastically embraced the idea of making creams with the only lavender oil distilled in Wales and so our collaboration began. We’ve been working together now for eight years. Helen is the creative force behind our creams and balms. Our brand, FARMERS’, can now be found in around 90 shops across the UK and in Ace Hotel in Shoreditch. Internationally we’re in Monocle Shops from Merano in Northern Italy to Singapore.
Tell us a little about the Farmers’ Welsh Lavender current team. What are its strengths and how would you describe its dynamics?
Nancy: Our strength is our remarkable little team. We have two full time members of staff and six part time contributors. I work closely with Bethan Travis, whose title is “Scouting for FARMERS”. We are both focused on expanding the business so we are endlessly kicking ideas back and forth trying to improve our pitches to potential trade customers. I think the team is strong because we like what we do and we have our hands on the business every day whether it’s the products or the fields.
What is the most frequent question your visitors ask you?
How does lavender grow in this climate?
How would you define the Farmers’ Welsh Lavender philosophy?
Over to Bill, our in house philosopher.
Bill: maximize human happiness.
What are your favourite dishes?
Nancy: I am crazy about minestrone. Bill is always inventing different ones, out of his garden of course. Never two the same and he gets tired of me asking for it. And I could live on all the things that can be done with tomatoes.
Bill: I love caviar, not easy to come by in mid Wales. I adore lobster and traditional French dishes with creamy sauces such as Suprèmes de Volaille. It is true I do almost all the cooking but Nancy’s barbecued hamburgers, with all the toppings, take the dish to new heights.
Where do you go when you want to relax or get inspired?
Nancy: It’s straight into our new workspace. We’ve taken over our wooden shed. It's huge and light and warm. I love to hang around out there at the end of the day planning the next, coming up with ideas.
Bill: We have some magical woodlands on the farm and I like to wander there among the trees or retreat to my study and my books.
What are your favourite places in the area?
Nancy: I love to drive over Pant y Llyn moor to Hay on Wye where I’ll meet a friend for lunch and go to the shops. The west coast of Wales is gorgeous and when the sun’s out there are no better beaches anywhere.
Bill: I like to wander on the desolate moorlands that surround our farm. To the west it is a major army firing range which provides interesting moments.
What is the best piece of advice you have ever received?
Nancy: Pay attention to all the details and don’t hurry.
Bill: Invest in George Soros’s Quantum Fund. Unfortunately I did not do so.
What are you reading at the moment?
Nancy: Addlands by Tom Bullough.
Bill: Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan.
What are your dreams and ambitions for Farmers’ Welsh Lavender?
To grow and to create more jobs and wealth in our community.
Thank you, Nancy & Bill for your hospitality and for the insight into your personal realm and inspiring entrepreneurial venture.