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Saturday, June 15, 2024
FoodRomy Fraser

Romy Fraser

T.S. Elliot maintained that ‘April is the cruellest month.’ This year it was plain crazy, setting the record as the wettest April for 125 years while we were also officially in drought. When the deluge finally abated and the arks could go back in their sheds, a newly quenched landscape emerged. Suddenly, all the world was green.
On a still soggy but vibrantly green day in early May I made my way through lanes lush with wild garlic, tangled stitchwort and vivid bluebells, with an invitation to the team lunch at Trill Farm. I wanted to talk to Romy Fraser—an early pioneer of organic skin care and founder of the iconic Neal’s Yard Remedies—about what had inspired her to exchange life as a London businesswoman for 300 hundred acres of rolling Devon countryside.
Romy sold Neal’s Yard Remedies in 2005 and bought Trill Farm near Axminster with the proceeds in 2007. Already a number of independent enterprises have taken root and are thriving on the farm. Ashley and Kate arrived in 2010 to start a market garden, Jake is running a grazing herd of Devon Ruby Red cattle and flocks of sheep—including silver-grey Gotlands; Ali, who has been with Romy since the very earliest days of NYR, is making soaps and natural beauty products and there’s a new herb growing business taking shape.
The whole farm is managed organically and is part of the Higher Level Environmental Stewardship Scheme, helping Trill to re-establish traditional orchards, and restore old hedgerows and species rich natural grassland—home to roaming groups of sika and roe deer. Trill’s ancient, semi-natural woodland is teeming with wildlife including several rare species of bat, and House sparrows, Song thrushes and Yellowhammers, all on the RSPB’s ‘red list’. The renovation and conversion of the farm’s buildings have been as green as possible and several small-scale energy generating systems have been installed, including solar water heating, ground source heat pumps, wind turbines and solar photovoltaic cells.
It’s a very ecologically minded paradise and the list of courses on offer—ranging from Homeopathy to Natural Perfumery and Navigating the Tides of Change—might give the impression that Trill is cashing in on the ever expanding lifestyle market for luxurious self-improvement, but Romy’s long term vision for the farm and the Trill Educational Trust is a much more challenging proposition. At one level her ambition was simple, ‘I wanted a farm because I wanted to produce food and I arrived at Trill with the idea that I was going to use the three hundred acres to produce some food that I could sell.’ At another level, like the motivation behind Neal’s Yard Remedies of providing opportunities for people to take some control of their own lives—especially their health—the ambition is pioneering and bold.
Romy’s ultimate goal is to establish a collection of ethical enterprises that will collectively demonstrate the profound and practical interconnections between living more healthily, responsibly and sustainably, and offer this as inspiration and a means of motivational, hands on learning—for young people in particular—that will also be transferable; able to cascade beyond Trill itself. As the beautiful Trill Farm website explains, ‘Above all else, we seek to foster an open and optimistic approach to contemporary living that is as intellectually and ethically satisfying as it is emotionally and physically fulfilling. Our ultimate aim is to reaffirm the connection between man, the animal kingdom and the nature that sustains us all.’ It’s quite something as manifestos go, and this time round Romy’s objective isn’t just about addressing individual and personal health, but about questioning, understanding and rebalancing the health, wisdom and sustainability of our whole way of living, and our respect—or otherwise—of nature and the earth’s resources.
It had been Romy’s birthday the day before we met and she was in a reflective mood. It’s been a good year, she is deeply aware of how fortunate she is, the project is gaining momentum and the process of personal transition, following the sale of Neal’s Yard Remedies and her move away from London, is almost complete. Arriving at Trill Farm had been hard and the project, combining farming and teaching—which are both woefully undervalued, ideologically as well as financially—is a big challenge. But Romy’s pragmatism and pioneering spirit—as well as her skills as a facilitator—are drawing in a diverse range of exceptional collaborators to contribute to the project’s ongoing development.
One of these is Daphne Lambert, founder of Green Cuisine and award winning chef, nutritionist, writer and teacher who is in residence at Trill for a year, teaching a range of courses and using the farm’s produce—wild and cultivated—to create inspirational food that demonstrates her pioneering approach to sustainable nutrition. Daphne, a powerhouse of feisty vitality and encyclopedic knowledge of food and nutrition, is also responsible for the daily team lunch, cooked and served in the converted dairy that now houses an impressive open plan, commercial kitchen and a simple ‘refectory’ dining room.
On the day I visited, Trill’s core team was joined by Wwoofers from Italy and Spain. Daphne had made barley and herb risotto and a fragrant, stretchy rye bread, both bursting with flavour, followed—in celebration of Romy’s birthday—by almond and raw chocolate cake, adorned with a delicate posy of leaves and wildflowers. It was one of those rare meals that are perfectly simply but have real heft and depth; are fine tuned but somehow light hearted. Each understated component was an authentic, unfussy tribute to wonderful ingredients, expert preparation and restrained yet beautiful presentation. As a whole, the meal was delicious, joyful and deeply satisfying.
For the risotto, Daphne used barley from the farm’s first harvest and with an expansive gesture—taking in the courtyard and surrounding fields—said the herbs were ‘just what I found growing round and about.’ As we ate, Daphne explained the technical differences between pearl and pot barley—it’s to do with how many of the hull layers are removed in the processing—and that she and Romy are looking for a supplier of ‘black’ barley with a view to growing it on the farm. Although black barley—an ancient variety indigenous to Ethiopia—has a lower yield, the grain that can go straight from field to table without processing as the ‘gloom’ or bran layer stays attached to the kernel and is edible. With no need for processing, it’s an energy saving crop that retains all its nutritional properties; and is delicious and beautiful too—cooking to a wonderful black sheen.
The team lunch was a good example of Romy’s approach to work. She believes that the workplace should encourage meaningful communication—precisely the opposite of what most workplaces actually do—and with food at its heart this daily ritual is an effective way of keeping the Trill message alive in mind and body. Employee and customer participation, sharing knowledge and expertise were also fundamental to the business ethos of Neal’s Yard Remedies. The company, which had a young and, for the time, an unusually multi-cultural workforce, also took the unusual step of sharing its ideas and recipes with customers and encouraging them to make their own customised versions of the products. Later, when it had helped to put herbal remedies on the map, NYR pioneered courses in the wider implications of health and lifestyle.
After lunch, during a long chat in the farmhouse kitchen I asked Romy about her childhood influences. ‘I’ve always been interested in things being just and fair and that led to exploring different ways of teaching, different approaches to health and then different ways of doing business’. NYR prioritised sustainable and more equitable ways of doing things—striving for an ethical approach that was radical at the time—which Romy attributes in part to the social influences of the 60’s. While she believes that the way a business is run is profoundly political she wasn’t brought up in an overtly political family, but with a very strong work ethic. Her parents had inherited a lovely house but Romy remembers her country childhood—on the chalk downs of Surrey and Sussex—as frugal. Her mother pickled and bottled, ran a productive vegetable garden, kept chickens and would unravel the sweaters Romy and her siblings wore out and use the wool to make something new.
‘There was never any surplus money, ever. My mum was a very practical hard working person with a talent for making something of nothing and never wasting resources.’ This respect for resources had a profound impact on Romy, whose love of manufacturing—‘a genuine process of transformation and exchange’—is underpinned by a commitment to fair exchange and equitable wealth distribution, which she believes have far reaching consequences for people’s livelihoods and wellbeing.
When she was eight Romy had an inspirational Nature teacher who introduced her to poetry and inspired her deep—and abiding—love of plants. This led to ‘A’ levels in Botany and Zoology, after which she trained as a teacher. ‘I always knew I wanted to be a teacher. It just seemed a means of creating a fairer world.’ After teacher training at Froebel College, Romy spent six years teaching at Kirkdale, a democratic school in London, managed by a parent-teacher group with students involved in running the school, and encouraged to free-range and choose which classes to attend. When her first daughter was born in 1970, Romy became interested in homeopathy and alternative healthcare as a means of taking more control of her own and her family’s health. ‘I just wasn’t very keen on men in white coats telling me what to do. Birth is a natural process, not a medical condition ‘owned’ by a body of experts and I was very clear that we could do an awful lot more ourselves, but we needed tools. Homeopathy is something that looks at the whole person and I found the idea of treating the whole person—taking into account physical symptoms and emotional states to build up a constitutional picture—very exciting. And I saw homeopathy work.’
After Kirkdale, Romy was working in literacy projects while investigating comparative education, looking at what really worked with a view to opening her own progressive school. Inspired during a holiday in France by apothecaries selling herbs and natural remedies, she realised there was nothing like this available in the UK, and saw an opportunity. When she was offered retail space at Neal’s Yard in Covent Garden she took the plunge, although she maintains she knew next to nothing about herbal medicine at the time, intending to use the business to generate capital for her educational project. ‘I didn’t necessarily trust authority and I was interested in looking for other solutions. It didn’t really matter if it was a homeopathic remedy or a herbal remedy, an essential oil or the means for people to make their own toiletries. I just thought these things should be available so that people could have more control and be more involved in making decisions for themselves about leading a healthier life’.
In 1981 organic skin care was virtually unheard of. Three decades later we take Bach flower remedies, Arnica, St John’s Wort and essential oils for granted. Emporia of holistic health selling lotions and potions made with organic ingredients are doing a brisk trade on every high street. It’s hard to compute just how visionary Neal’s Yard Remedies really was and how much it has contributed to revolutionising the face—and fortunes—of alternative approaches to health, wellbeing and beauty. For Romy the balance sheet was never an end in itself and all this while she’s kept faith with the pledge she made to herself that one day she would set up the educational project that went on hold when Neal’s Yard Remedies took over her life. ‘If you promise yourself that you’re going to do something, you have to honour that and I wanted one day to try to demonstrate how to stop making such a mess of our lives in the first place.’
What Romy has established at Trill in three short years is just the beginning. She realises that the farm and educational trust on their own aren’t going to change the face of farming and food production or secure a fairer and sustainable future, but they are part of a vast and expanding movement of individuals, groups and businesses that together can secure real change. ‘The no name movement (Paul Hawken, is a truly exciting idea and Trill is part of that. We’ve got to work as communities and societies with all the little units linking together to form a global network to start taking back control of our lives. But to lead a healthier life, to be more involved in your own life, you need the fundamentals of how to be healthy. We’ve not been brought up to ask if we really want to use resources in this way. We don’t ask the right questions because we don’t know the story.’
Trill is about telling and demonstrating that story by incubating a collection of small ethical businesses that are interdependent and make energy efficient use of the diverse resources the farm has to offer. Romy is working towards a one year course for school leavers and other young people that will offer a range of opportunities—from woodland, land and livestock management, growing food, product design and processing to marketing and selling. ‘That’s an interesting process for a young person to be able to work through in order to develop creative and business skills. So there are several very sound reasons for creating this collection of businesses. They’ll provide the training ground for young people, make use of the natural resources on the farm and turn these into products to provide income to keep the farm going and support the young people who are coming to learn. I think ethical business—making something work in a way that benefits everybody—is fairly crucial in this world and having your own business that you’re in control of and your own motivation, but being part of a joint venture, something bigger that you’re proud to be a part of, which in turn is part of something even bigger, is really exciting. Trill can be an example of how we could do things in a much healthier, more enjoyable, socially friendly way—ecologically—for the future.’
Last year Trill held its first Summer Festival, affirming Romy’s vision, and delighting and inspiring hundreds of visitors with four packed days of activities, workshops, discussions, entertainment—and glorious food. Writing on the—Soil Association’s blog, Lynda Brown declared, ‘Trill Farm’s Summer Week has changed the goal posts for all farm events. You won’t find any lamas, junk food, stalls advertising free solar panels … you will (among other things) be able to make your own music from sounds you record on the farm, have a go at experimental sketching using local charcoal, engage in debates and talk serious farming if you want …go stargazing, tree listening, make your own raft and launch it on the farm’s lake, walk on the wild (plant) side, or indulge in a fabulous organic and wild-food-from-the-farm feast … In short you will be able to see, feel, touch, eat, experience and enjoy sustainability from every angle, plus those you’d never thought of.’
As a visitor to the festival what struck me most powerfully was the conviction, embedded right across the incredible range of activities on offer, that in spite of difficult challenges we can be more optimistic about a sustainable future if we learn from each other by finding ways to share and demonstrate our knowledge, and make a commitment together to a vision for implementing change that’s both radical and practical. This will certainly stretch our imaginations and ingenuity but it will be enjoyable and deeply satisfying in the process.
The team at Trill is currently putting together the programme for this year’s summer festival. You can camp out for the full five nights, book a tipi or a gypsy wagon, check into a local B&B or just drop in for a day—or a feast! Whatever you do don’t miss it.  I’ll see you there.

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