This month I’m writing something different and it’s rather long. It’s not about products or musings, it’s about life, business and change. Many of you will know that earlier in the year I moved to the Isle of Harris, a small island off the north west coast of Scotland. A group of islands known as the Western Isles. It was a radical move. A change on every level.
What is less clear to many is why I did it. So today I thought I’d write about that.
I started A.S Apothecary in Lewes in East Sussex, it is a significant part of my life, it represents my values and approach to the business of business. It’s about trust, care and integrity and I have poured my energy into it.
We were lucky enough to be offered a barn and organic land nearby where we could grow, distil and make. It was critically important to me that we should use our own plants and make everything by hand to ensure freshness and efficacy. Old plants quickly lose their healing capacity and commercial oils are often poor quality, equally commercial high volume products lack the benefit of human touch.
The route I chose is challenging – most companies either grow or make or retail, a miniscule few try to do all three. It is expensive, time consuming and fraught with risk. A poor spring can retard plant growth, a dry summer makes everything dash to seed, high wind ruins flowers, constant wetness encourages slugs and snails, constant dryness encourages powdery mildew. Relying on British summers year after year makes for sleepless nights. However, to my delight, the plants have triumphed in one way or another every single year, it’s us who have had to really be on our toes to accommodate them.
From the start, we looked to Europe and Hong Kong and were rewarded with contracts and stockists. What six years ago seemed like an entirely logical decision, has in the last three proved heartbreaking. What is clear is that Brexit has proved to be a turning point, a tipping into a whole different economic and political climate. It has brought xenophobia and intolerance on an unimaginable scale. Friends have been abused in the street, other friends have had to fight tooth and nail to acquire settled status with many months of uncertainty and distress in the process. It has made me feel ashamed of our government and for the first time in my adult life I feel politically alienated.
Businesses large, small and particularly micro are going to the wall – the smaller you are the fewer reserves you have to weather a prolonged storm. The lies that frame the current debate are as prevalent as they were during the campaign. Politicians are letting us down – the worst lining their own pockets and the best still proving ineffective. Brexit is a looming disaster for business, September being the worst recorded for retail sales since 1995 and worse is to come. Meanwhile all the other desperately important debates on health, welfare and environment are being sidelined whilst the chaos of Brexit continues to dominate.
Costs are rising for everything – bottles, ingredients, labels, couriers to name but a few, meanwhile our key market in Europe is being undermined daily whilst our Hong Kong market is literally under siege. It is like watching a slow motion car crash over which there is no control.
The idea that when (if) we finally reach a deal to leave or stay, everything will revert to being fine is sheer lunacy. Nobody knows what is going to happen but what is clear is that in the short to medium term, nothing will be better and our reputation in Europe is shattered. For those of us whose main trade is in Europe this has serious consequences.
In this environment we are continuing our work; growing, distilling, making and selling but it is tough. It is a constant mental and emotional struggle to keep forging forwards. Without the brilliant Asapoth team of women it would all feel so much harder and I am grateful to them every day. People often talk about a work family, but my colleagues are so much more than that, they are the essential elements of this little business..
The decision to move up here, to this tiny island with fewer than 2000 inhabitants was not taken lightly. I came here for several reasons. I came to find a little peace – a place to still my mind, to stop the racing, to restore my equilibrium. I came because I wanted to create a refuge for friends and family, somewhere to walk, rest and eat well. I also came here because I love it. Six years of working with the Isle of Harris Distillery, of travelling back and forth had allowed me to explore this place, to see the island in every season and to appreciate this landscape, which is breathtaking, whatever the weather. I could see the minute I arrived here on my first visit that this was a place to capture my heart, to offer new botanicals and the space to really experiment with new plants, ideas and processes.
I visited intending to buy a plot of land and build a passive house. I could see the possibilities of being based here and was excited to show my partner that this was a place where we could thrive. As it happened when we were driving around the island in early February, I took him to see the Temple Café in Northton, a place I had visited several times. Astonishingly it was for sale along with a wreckage of a house and a croft. We bought it and now live in one end of the wreck which is more or less habitable as long as you never take your vest off or need hot water to wash in.
I’ve never run a café and didn’t want to be distracted from A.S Apothecary and developing WildEve so my beautiful (nearly) niece came over from Ghana and took it on, with me cheering her on from the sidelines. She and her team have been great this season. Next season will be better again as we really get into our stride and make the changes for the cafe to become a really special place to visit.
My partner returned from Cyprus to renovate the house and I am free to pick, experiment, test and create. In Lewes it was hard to be creative, to find a space to be still enough to really think. Here it is the opposite, I walk by the sea or into the hills and I find a good rock for my ample behind and I sit. I carry a flask of coffee, my camera, notebook and special pen (thank you Sandra) and I take the time to let my thoughts meander and form new ideas.
Today I walked up into the hills where the Heather has turned from pink to umber, the grass bright green after the rain and the granite rocks sparkled. I passed a well-stocked loch and watched a fisherman perch precariously in his little boat casting and flicking the line across the surface of the water. It was mesmeric. I walked higher and higher and just as I was growing tired the perfect rock came into view and so I sat for an hour with my thoughts.
I consider myself incredibly fortunate, I have found a team of women who think just as I do on the ethos and direction of the company. We all strive together to make it work and it is their generosity and love that has allowed me to move here. I travel to Lewes 10 days a month and the rest of the time I’m here in this beautiful place getting on with my work, making, testing, thinking, whilst knowing that down in Sussex plants are being cared for, oils distilled and products made with the same care and attention that they always were.
Whatever happens in the coming months, we’ll reshape and survive because we are resilient and creative and our customers are loyal and supportive. So thanks to all of you for all you do, and come to visit this magical place where your mind can rest, away from all the chaos elsewhere, it is balm for the soul.