In the last of our Through the Treehole interviews, we talk to Sir Michael (scion of the Colmans mustard family) and his wife, Lady Colman.
Creators of the award-winning Summerdown Mint brand and loyal Ashridge customers for many years, Michael single-handedly revived the British mint industry when most of his peer group were retiring, whilst Judith is an intrepid traveller and arboretum planter.
You took on Michael’s father’s large, loss-making estate in Hampshire in 1960 and transformed it into a highly successful concern, creating an arboretum, managed forestry and the mint growing operation. What’s the secret of your success as a team?
Judith: It’s quite simple; Michael does the sustainability and makes the estate work – I do encouragement and making things look beautiful. Our faith is our inspiration. We believe it’s our Christian duty to use resources sustainably – and that includes being able to afford the skills of those who keep things going.
Why the mint farm?
Michael: A long story! When we took over 60 years ago, the farm was in trust to my eldest son – I have always been the life tenant. My father ran the farm as a loss-making hobby, with a handful of glossy chestnut Red Poll cattle, a dairy and not much else.
We were encouraged to get ‘Common Market ready’ (that dates us!), growing oil seed rape, then vining peas that had to be sent abroad for canning and freezing. Trials for potatoes for frozen chips were stymied by our stony Hampshire soil (which left black marks on the crop) before our thoughts turned to beans (not enough of a market), mushrooms (outclassed by Irish growers) and then peppermint.
Black Mitchum mint was once grown extensively in Surrey – at the end of the 19th century the UK produced the finest peppermint oil in the world - but our crops and skills were lost as land was used for growing food rather than peppermint. During the war US soldiers dug up roots to grow back home on the west coast. Decades later Hampshire Farm Developments returned the favour and brought back plants from the US to try here. The large local farmers weren’t interested, but my farm manager, Colin Burnett was keen to give it a go and his successor, Ian Margett, took up the baton and made it into the sizeable speciality crop it is today…
I’m not sure I’d contributed much thus far, but when the world mint price plummeted, I realised our peppermint oil was far superior to that used in well-known high street mint brands, so set about developing our own chocolate products and selling high-quality oil for confectionary. And then came fragrances, bath oils and teas…
Judith: Yes – 2 drops of peppermint oil on a sugar lump is great for digestion! We have our own distillery and now also grow chamomile and lavender. The quality is so good that selling the pure oils is a growing part of the business.
What has been the best and most enjoyable part of the story?
Michael: What I love most is working with a team that is really enthusiastic and just wants to get going.
Lady Colman, why an arboretum?
Judith: My father-in-law left a beautiful arboretum called the Long Walk and I soon became interested in managing it and adding new trees. I particularly enjoy magnolias and malus – there are now several species up and down the walk. But I also wanted to create something of my own, so in the year Apollo landed, we planted a whole new arboretum – and called it, not surprisingly, the Apollo Walk.
I’ve always loved trees, and although I didn’t do much with forestry, I was good at encouraging! I wanted quality trees to grow alongside the standard softwood and was delighted when we entered our woods for the first year of the Duke of Cornwall Award for Forestry 30 years ago and won!
Although we haven’t won since, I did have a visit from an arboriculturist who said I had one of the finest private collections he had seen.
What are your favourite trees?
Judith: Malus prattii; we have a lovely one with a plaque inscribed ‘A County Champion’. It’s possibly the tallest one in England, unless Hilliers have one taller – I’m going to get the Trobi people around to confirm this, in which case mine could be a national champion.
Michael: For me, it’s the large weeping beech at the entrance to my father’s arboretum.