In a quiet part of the English countryside, in fields bursting with scented flowers and herbs, an innovative Dorset venture is changing the face of the British perfume industry.
Nestled in the in the Tarrant Valley, and bordered by the River Stour, Keyneston Mill is a beautiful, tranquil estate, whose scented perfume fields stretch across 50 acres. The rural idyll is in full force here – with river walks, natural woodlands, converted stone barns and an orchard where bees are happily and productively located. But it’s the fields and formal gardens that are really the star of the show at Keyneston Mill, Blandford Forum, Dorset – their heady, colourful expanse a striking patchwork on the valley canvas.
The Bridgers moved here in 2015, after looking specifically for a property with enough space and scope to grow the flowers and herbs for their perfume business, which they had started to explore a few years before. “We have both loved perfume for many years, but in fact we approached the business from the horticultural angle,” explains Julia. The duo started growing cut flowers and trialling herbs on a small scale at David’s family property, and then visited Grasse in the South of France, the centre of modern perfumery in Europe, whilst on holiday. “It was then that we started thinking in terms of growing our own perfume ingredients,” says Julia. “And the idea grew from there. It turns out that this was quite a unique proposition as no-one else has taken on the challenge in quite the way we have.”
The Bridger’s launched their first perfume in Fortnum & Mason in 2017, and three years on, with open gardens, a bistro, a gift shop as well as perfume workshops and a busy year-round events programme, Parterre is now a thriving creative and experimental hub.
Julia, David and their team grow, harvest and distill all the key ingredients for their luxury perfumes on-site – with all 50-acres dedicated solely to aromatic and scented plants. “There are over 1500 varieties currently in cultivation,” explains Julia. Beautiful and gloriously scented, these gardens are also practical trial beds where unusual varieties are grown and distilled in small batches, and are then planted out in the fields for use in future perfumes.
Designs for the trial beds and Collection gardens – which house all the plants used in the fragrances – have been thoughtfully put together, divided into distinct sections and often created with consideration for history and heritage of some of the great gardens of the world.
The gloriously scented Padua garden is home to the floral family of fragrances, featuring roses, jasmine, sweet peas and lilies, and is based on the design of the Orto Botanico, founded in 1545 in Italy by the Venetian Republic. “This garden is beautiful year-round,” says Julia. “From early spring when the bulbs emerge, through the summer months when the roses, peonies and sweet peas come into their own, and right through to the first frosts it is always colourful and gloriously scented.”
Close by, the Fougere (French for ‘fern’) garden is a heady mix of lavender, rosemary, clary sage, and mint as well as hundreds of different ferns, their earthy scent mixing perfectly with the pungent herbs; while the Citrus garden – a favourite of David’s – is an especially fresh and exciting addition, with a host of tangy scents and aromas.
The Spice Garden reﬂects the colours and scents of a contemporary spice market and is designed in geometric, block-planted beds, inspired by the works of Kandinsky. It includes classic spices such as bay and fennel, and the more unusual, like Vietnamese coriander and perilla.
All the plants in the Collection are related in some way to fragrance, and many have fascinating histories. “The gardens help us to bring to life some of the stories behind perfume making,” says Julia. Walking around the gardens, visitors are encouraged to rub the leaves between their fingers, and to allowing the different scents to release into the air. Julia explains that: “The plants are here for us all to enjoy. We want them to look – and smell – wonderful.” Entry to Keyneston Mill’s gardens is free throughout the winter, but you can also do garden tours that focus on specific flowers and herbs in the gardens, as well as workshops where Julia and her team share some of the process of perfume-making, and in particular the harvesting and distilling process that runs throughout the summer and into autumn.
The process of creating Parterre fragrances is quite complex, as every plant has to be treated differently, and the team now works with over 40 different crop varieties at any one time. As an example, Julia takes me through the process of working with rose-scented geraniums. “We propagate and nurture them indoors until May, when we plant them out in the perfume fields in rows. They are then tended for the next few months until it is time to harvest them, before distilling.”
Distillation takes place in the converted Long Barn, close to the Collection gardens, using their large still – affectionately called Dorothy – which extracts the oil from the foliage and flowers. The timing and the detail has to be very precise, and the intensity of fragrance is achieved through the careful nurturing of the plants, each of which is picked at the optimum moment. “Most plants, such as rose geranium, are harvested in the early morning and taken directly to the distillery, resulting in essential oils infused with freshness,” says Julia. “But, others, like vetiver root, are dried before distillation, a process that takes several days and produces an extract of rare depth and richness.”
After the oils have matured and been tested for several months, they are sent to Jacques Chabert, Parterre’s master perfumer based in Grasse – who has previously worked with Chanel and Guerlain. Using Parterre’s oils, produced fresh that season, he creates a series of perfumes, which are then bottled and packaged back at Keyneston Mill in Dorset.
The whole process from planting to bottled perfume can take 18 months or more, and each perfume is a highly limited edition, because each year Parterre only produces a small amount of the finest oils that form the key notes. From this, only a finite number of bottles of perfume is created from each yearly extraction. Like wine, no two years are the same, and so each bottle of perfume produced has its own unique and rich qualities, meaning a Parterre fragrance is both a luxury item and a unique piece of the British countryside.
Words | Emma Johnson
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