Monday, 28 July 2014

Things I Make With Lavender

Lavender is endlessly versatile: it is used to scent things, has antiseptic qualities, aids relaxation and can be eaten too. For centuries people have valued it in all kinds of ways, and I too try to celebrate its different uses. I love to think that I'm keeping some traditions alive in my own little way in my home.

Elizabethans used lavender water to sweeten washing and put bundles in bedding and under pillows to repel bugs and lice. It was also used to disguise bad smells and ward off disease. Thankfully we no longer need to use it to ward off plagues and such-like, but I still put lavender bags in with our folded bedding to make it smell sweet, and also in my drawers and wardrobe. 
In his Herball of 1597 Culpeper suggests you make a drink of lavender, cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves 'which doth helpe the panting and passion of the heart, prevaileth against giddinesse, turning or swimming of the brain'. I find that description of an agitated heart and brain so vivid, and like to think that lavender played a part in helping to relax such anxiety in Elizabethans. It has long been associated with relaxation and calmness, and I always put a couple of drops of lavender oil on my pillow when I change the sheets.

Here's my lavender after it's been dried. I've managed to accumulate several bags of it over the last few years, and it does keep its scent well, if kept in a sealed container. The perfume is absolutely intoxicating, and I love to run them through my fingers to enjoy it. The lovely smell stays with me long after I've handled it.

Lavender has been with me throughout my life, ever-present from childhood and always associated with my mum. Here is a sweet little plastic pomander which mum gave me when I was a small child. As you can see, it's a 70s design, a kind of Chinese lantern. I still fill it with lavender and hang it with my clothes.

She still grows lavender now, picking and drying it, and making it into lavender bags. She always edges them with lace and embroiders them with pretty scenes and flowers. She made me this one a few years ago, and embroidered a pansy onto it. She also made me one for my wedding, heart-shaped and embroidered with our names and the date. It hangs in my wardrobe, delicately scenting my clothes.

A couple of years ago I decided to make some lavender bottles after seeing them for sale. They are fairly easy but a bit fiddly to make, and must be made while the stems are still fresh, so that they bend without breaking (I followed instructions from a magazine, but there are lots of tutorials on the internet). I really like choosing lavender-coloured ribbons to make them with: purples, blues, lilacs and greens.

I also make lavender bags, like my mum. This one is crocheted from Lucy's pattern at Attic 24 (you can find it here), and it hangs on our dining room door. I used woollen yarn which I bought a few years ago in a yarn shop in Edinburgh, and some which was spun locally. I love the soft colours of the wool, and its texture and warmth.

This is a simple little bag made from calico, lace and a piece of lavender-embroidered ribbon. I love lavender's association with fresh laundry and cotton sheets. The name comes from the Latin lavare
which means 'to wash', and I think its associations with freshness and cleanliness means that it goes brilliantly with these materials.

I often make simple hearts from pieces of cotton fabric and old pearly buttons. I like to use offcuts of fabric like this one which is an old Laura Ashley design, and I used to enjoy selling them on my craft stalls.

You can also use lavender in cooking, and for centuries it has been eaten in savoury dishes. The dried buds can be ground up with coarse sea salt to make a seasoning for things like roast potatoes. Nowadays, though, it tends to be eaten in sweet dishes and pairs well with chocolate. It can be added to caster sugar to make baked goods  - here's some I made last year.

I also make lavender cake every summer from this recipe, and this year is no exception. It's a very moist cake and has that unmistakeable flavour. It can be an acquired taste, however. Someone I gave it to once remarked that they thought it would taste like soap and were relieved that it didn't!

Lavender shortbread is very good too, and this year I made it from this recipe. It was definitely the best batch ever, and I was really pleased with it. The flavour is quite delicate, and the biscuits are pretty with their topping of sprinkled caster sugar (although they're not great for the waistline!).

Lavender's blue, dilly dilly,
Lavender's green.
When I am king, dilly dilly,
You will be queen.

Thursday, 24 July 2014


We are very lucky to live just 20 minutes' drive from the beautiful city of Wells. We go there frequently for shopping and for coffees, and it's one of my favourite places. The smallest city in England, Wells lies at the foot of the Mendip hills, and is a lovely place to go for a wander on a sunny day.

We went there this week on market day, and headed into the busy market place past one of the three wells which give the city its name. The Mendips are famous for their caves and underground streams, or swallets, and water from these springs rise to the surface here.

Wells is full of tourists and holidaymakers at this time of year, and market day is even busier.

This is one of our favourite stalls, laden with local Somerset cheeses, cider, jams and chutneys - delicious!

At the top end of the market we wandered through a beautiful medieval gatehouse.

On such a hot day, it was wonderfully cool under here.

In front of us was the moat which encloses the Bishop's Palace, home to the Bishop of Bath and Wells for 800 years. It's filled with water from St Andrew's Well which emerges in the Palace gardens.

A family of swans glide gracefully across the moat, and the palace walls are reflected in the weedy water.

I noticed small details, like this old bell next to the drawbridge.

Once through the gatehouse we were in the grounds of the Palace, and admired the sweeping view. Someone works hard on those lawns! Behind the ruined walls there are gardens, and a small arboretum. It's a good place to spend a sunny day relaxing with a book.

Back across the moat, and there's a striking swan sculpture. Swans are famous as the city's emblem, and they have learnt over the years to pull a bell cord to ring for their food next to the drawbridge.

We strolled back through this gatehouse which is called the Bishop's Eye, as it symbolised the bishop's watch over the city.

I love the local limestone here in Wells. It's a soft, warm honey colour and is rounded and worn on these ancient buildings.

Past the market we wandered ...

and through the Penniless Porch.

We emerged into the Liberty of St Andrew, a large precinct which contains the cathedral and all its buildings. It's a lovely place to sit and relax, and we sat on a blanket to eat our lunch and admire the view.

And what a view! The cathedral always takes my breath away.

It dates back to the 12th century and is absolutely stunning.

As I sat on the grass I looked more closely, trying to take it all in, as I so often do.

There are over 300 figures on the facade. Some of them are very weathered, and like so many cathedrals, its restoration is ongoing. 

After lunch I went for a wander on my own. Around the side of the cathedral it gets more interesting

The cathedral is built in Early Gothic style: this door is framed by many pillars and arches within arches, and it's just a side door!

This astronomical clock is 700 years old, and every quarter of an hour the knights joust. Small groups of people often gather, waiting to watch this.

Underneath the arch is invitingly cool, and the stone is delightfully smooth and worn.

This lovely vaulted ceiling leads out to a cobbled street.

This is Vicar's Close and is the oldest residential street in Europe - love those chimneys!

I strolled lazily back down the High Street towards the shops.

Wells has some lovely little independent shops and cafes. This vintage one is very sweet.

The houses and cottages are pretty too - I love the soft green painted doors on this one and the climbing roses.

At last, weary from the heat, it was time for us to go home. I love Wells in all weathers, but it's especially gorgeous on a summer's day.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014


It's time for my lavender harvest! At this time of year when the days are at their hottest and the sun is at its highest, the lavender is at its best. This photo was taken about 3 weeks ago when it was just coming into flower. Since then the flowers have bloomed and been picked by me.

 It's a Mediterranean herb with silvery spiked leaves, so it loves to grow in well-drained soil in full sun. As I brush past it the scent is released in the heat. Looking at these photos makes me think I can almost smell it now.

I have several different varieties in the garden including Grosso (used for essential oil extraction), Rosea (pink), Melissa Lilac and Hidcote (dark purple). 

Bees adore lavender, and butterflies too. On a hot day a lavender bush positively buzzes with them.

This is known as French lavender, or lavender stoechas, and it has elongated bracts which make it a very graceful garden plant.

In close-up those bracts look like tiny feathers.

The deeply purple buds are very attractive, and it's at this stage that they should be picked on a dry day.

The bracts then open into attractive flowers, and if you look closely they have tiny orange centres.

Here's the same lavender a week later, looking much paler and more washed out.

I did pick it, but it's better harvested before it flowers.

The wonderful smell is so intense. After I've picked it, my hands smell lavendery for quite a while afterwards. 

I carefully tie the flowers into bunches, and lay them in our outside table to let any spiders and other bugs crawl away.

So here it is, tied into bunches and ready to dry in my airing cupboard. I'll tell you what I do with it once it's dry in another post.