…Or from botanic gardens to distillery- all within a short walk of each other. Founders David and Julia Bridger explain how they grew their own scent farm, from the roots up…
Dorset is one of the few counties in England without a motorway. There are good things and bad things about this. On the downside it means that the taxi driver is liable to get lost when – armed only with a postcode – you ask them to take you to an 18th-century mill house nestling on the edge of the River Stour in the Tarrant Valley near the market town of Blandford Forum. On the plus side, it’s the reason I’m here: because Keyneston Mill Botanic Gardens arguably wouldn’t exist otherwise.
Only founded in 2016, the former fruit farm ticked all the boxes when David and Julia Bridger first chanced upon it.
Having both carved successful careers – David in design and marketing, Julia in advertising and then luxury property rental – the couple were looking for a new challenge, armed with certain specific criteria. Having set up home in Hampshire, where David grew up on a non-working farm (‘There were a few cows around’), Julia had become a keen gardener, trialling specialist plants. Remembering her childhood visits to the French fragrance capital of Grasse; the seed of an idea was sown. The two started searching for locations where they could grow crops for the fragrance market. And Keyneston was the hidden gem they’d been looking for.
‘Dorset is quite interesting,’ says David. ‘It’s more rural than Hampshire and therefore there are more horticultural opportunities, because it’s less developed.’ The opportunity in this case was something of an ambitious one: to create the largest private botanic gardens in the country dedicated solely to aromatic and scented plants. In other words, as David explains, ‘to take the seed-to bottle concept, which is starting with the ingredients, actually growing the flowers, all the way through to the fragrance’. Now, just two years down the line, the mill grows more than 2,000 varieties, providing the key ingredients for their fragrance brand Parterre, with perfumes distilled on-site.
This is no small undertaking. The production process involves growing ingredients from seed, planting in the crop fields, and knowing when to harvest, distill and refine. There wasn’t even a clear model for them to base any of this on.
‘In the world of fine fragrance,’ says David, ‘what they tend to do is get their ingredients from all over – Bulgaria, Morocco… they grow the May rose in Grasse, but that’s all I think. As perfume grew as an industry, they had to look at different ways to produce it, with economies of scale. Grasse used to be the countryside, but now it’s just the outskirts of Cannes…’
‘In the 1970s and 1980s, a lot of perfume companies started using ingredients in labs,’ continues Julia, ‘so the demand for perfume to be grown in France probably dropped off.’
So, if even the established perfume houses have eschewed the concept of a seed-to-bottle business all based at one single site, it rather begs the question…
But it’s not just naïvety – albeit coupled with enthusiasm and tenacity – that has brought Parterre to market. Meticulous research helps. But more than anything, there is a question of timing.
‘Why hasn’t anyone done this before? No one’s been mad enough to do it!’ chuckles David. ‘But the more serious answer to that is there’s a whole range of skills required to go from seed to bottle, and piecing that together is quite hard work. You need horticulturalists – gardeners and botanists – there’s distillation, the laboratory, our perfumer Jacques Chabert…’
‘And that’s without all the marketing,’ Julia interjects. ‘I suppose like all things, if you weren’t a bit naïve when you began, you’d never do it!’
‘It didn’t seem that complicated when we started off,’ adds David, with a wry smile.
But it’s not just naïvety – albeit coupled with enthusiasm and tenacity – that has brought Parterre to market. Meticulous research helps. But more than anything, there is a question of timing. The outsourced, multinational approach to production is something that is beginning to be questioned in all industries – and the Bridgers have been wise enough to recognise this opportunity and run with it. ‘Because there’s a regrowth of interest in naturals and authenticity and provenance, I think we’ve almost accidentally bumped into this idea that people are now genuinely interested to know where the ingredients have come from,’ says David.
Words by Mark Hooper, Photographs Sam Walton, Hole & Corner, Issue 17: Elements.
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