Great Elm's origins: the dream of a first class cream.

by Liv O'Hanlon

PUBLISHED in The Independent newspaper, June 2005.

One evening, in May 2003, I announced to the assembled family that we would be moving out of London. I can’t say I was filled with a zeal to start Britain’s finest organic skincare company, just a deep urge to get the hell out of what was becoming hellish.

It had been one of those days. Our elder son had caught the bus from school. Walking home from the bus-stop he was stopped by a boy on a bike. He knocked my boy’s pack off his back, slapped his lapels about a bit and demanded money. This was my lad’s third mugging.

Meanwhile, our younger son, had been having his own battles. His were with his teacher, a woman pacing herself for retirement and happy only with kids with straight As and a meek manner. Our boy had neither. But at least he had plenty of time to tell me how hopeless everything was: it took us an hour and a half in gridlocked traffic to get home.

My husband was very late that night too, stuck in the tube for an unexplained wait on his way back to South London from Docklands. His travelling time had been doubled - again. In turn, that stopped the children having a chance to be reassured and cuddled by their dad.

My mother, quadriplegic and in a nursing home six miles away, was increasingly unhappy because the staff were leaving in droves and, not surprisingly, there was little opportunity for either tip-top care or kindly chat. She needed somewhere more peaceful and consistent.

And then there was me: I’d been campaigning for better practices in adoption for the past 12 years or so and now there was a new act of Parliament, the Adoption and Children Act 2002, on the statute book. What more could I do? Anyway, after all that time with no pay, the bank account could do with balancing.

By September the boys were at new school near Bath, and we’d rented a 16th century farmhouse with stone flags inside and cows out. Smelly, cold, misty and damp it was during that winter on the Mendips but it prompted us to quicken the house-hunting pace. One day we looked at lovely Rock House in the village of Great Elm but it was too big and too expensive.

I had tramped round many houses by then and, each time, I saw a different future flashing before me. Running a vineyard. Setting up artisans’ studios. Keeping cows/hens/pigs/growing flowers/veg/soft fruit/raising compost worms. It had to be something where I wrote my own timetable: I’m not good at being governed. It also had to be something to do with living, feeling, and being part of the countryside. Impossibly romantic perhaps but heartfelt nevertheless – the impulses of my Celtic genepool? Or maybe a harking back to my mother’s country, Norway, and all those long, light summers on the fjord fishing, swimming, sailing, or up in the mountains picking berries and mushrooms, whittling away at bits of wood or being taught by my elegant grandmother how to make natural dyes from moss, or simple concoctions for skin and hair, or delicious meals from wild foods.

Ignoring the romance and nostalgia, there were practical factors too: I was now away from the seat of power in London so campaigning would be far trickier. I was out of touch too with my old job, journalism. So I enrolled on a business course in Bristol to gain some useful basic knowledge.

On the third (how on earth did that happen?) visit to Rock House, we wandered through the walled garden. Silky winter sun peeking through the branches and lighting up the winter green. There was a terrible concrete-slabbed garden feature or two but the planting was truly wonderful, overgrown, but extraordinary. Suddenly, rather too suddenly for so blissfully tranquil a place, the thought jumped: ‘That’s it. A herb garden. Now what was the name of that woman at the children's school, the medical herbalist looking for a garden?’ I’d heard about her but never met her and here I was predicating my tomorrows on a stranger. Ridiculous.

We met. She too saw the garden’s possibilities. Even better she’d run a similar business for a couple of years in Maine, US, in response to her patients’ wishes. She loved the work but not the rigours of marketing and admin. What I needed of course was someone with the ability to make first class products. And we’d have to share the same sense of the world: a bit fanatical about quality, an appreciation of the strength and lure of nature, elegance and beauty; an unending interest in the lot of children and, vitally, the need to make a contribution.

A couple of months later, we were baggy-eyed with searching the net for possible competitors and then for bottles, jars, herb and plant-oil suppliers, regulations governing cosmetics’ production, designers, web experts and every other necessary element. By then, we’d discovered a lot more about each other, been irritated and cross once or twice but on the whole laughed a lot and gradually pulled together a clear idea of what we wanted to sell and the way we wanted to run the company. We saw it as a truly holistic company (ghastly though the word is). We wanted products that were good, looked good, did good things for our customers, and transmogrified some of that good into practical help for those who haven’t got much good in their lives. It’s about elegance in the round, an elegance of purpose and action, a reflection of nature perhaps.

We found surprisingly few companies doing what we intended which was to use the traditional herbalist’s knowledge of nature and its bountiful plants, grown as organically as possible. There were plenty of products making similar claims but, on closer inspection, we found frighteningly often they contained elements like mineral oils (from petrochemicals) and all sorts of other ingredients that my lovely herbalist (and many others including the Women’s Environmental Network and the Soil Association) considered to be unpleasant or even perilous.

This long list includes what we consider the big no-no ingredients, among them: parabens which act as preservatives but have been associated with breast cancer; phthalates which have been linked with sub-fertility; Triclosan which doesn’t break down properly and has been found in breast milk; sodium lauryl sulphate which acts as a skin irritant (inside and out) and propylene glycol, a moisture retainer that can cause rashes and has even been linked to central nervous system damage. Not forgetting butylated hydroxytoluene a preservative antioxidant that is banned from use in baby foods. It is not, however, an illegal substance for use on skin.

For us, it simply doesn’t make sense or seem fair that companies can sell products which could potentially harm their clients. Think about what your skin does. It’s your largest organ. It’s there to protect you but it is not impermeable. Anything that is rubbed into it eventually seeps inside. Women (and men of course) slap on all sorts substances regardless, trusting in companies to be reasonable.

It would be foolish to argue that all chemicals are bad or that it’s possible to lead a life these days without them. Certainly my own high intentions are often undermined by low practicalities. At my most extreme I disapprove of cars – beastly noisy dangerous smelly things – but I use one every day. I dislike supermarkets because of their dull uniformity and the huge dent they make in local freedoms but, yes, I go there. I know that chocolate is particularly bad for a metabolism like mine but do I have the character to deny myself? Um, no.

I end up compromising more than I’d like to but not on the things I hold most dear.

My passion is for honest dealing. What took me into campaigning for children was that the authorities lied, lied unforgivably about the condition of children in the care system, even down to how many there were; they evaded the uncomfortable truths that more and more children are separated from inadequate families and are then very badly cared for by the state. It’s a rarity for children in care to gain even one GCSE let alone a degree but a life of prostitution, early teen parenthood, drug addiction, unemployment, homelessness and prison, is horribly predictable. Perhaps it’s no wonder given the average ‘cared-for’child is buffeted through three ‘family placements’ every year. As I write I can feel my old anger rise up again and a desire to turn this piece in a different direction.

Instead let me present a linked loathing: I can’t stand business when it misbehaves and mis-sells simply to build inordinate stashes of dosh; or politicians, or public servants, or all those charity workers who pretend to have the best interest of their work at heart when all they’re really concerned about is maintaining their jobs and their pension plans. They cling to the status quo entirely for personal gain.

This cowardly attachment to the status quo could also be blamed for the slow progress of combatting many environmental ills too. All of us have trouble sticking to greener rules but at least we try our best at Great Elm Physick Garden. We use what we find in our garden (augmented inevitably by established local producers) to make creams and potions that are healthy. We’ve opted for the organic route because we feel we’re dealing with known effects rather than unknowns. We had no luck, sadly, sourcing sound silky ribbon and sticky tape but the boxes and bags and wrapping are as environmentally friendly as we can find. We bottle in glass because it’s easy to recycle and doesn’t leach anything unknown (or indeed known) into its contents. The lids are aluminium, again recycling-friendly. And we’ve concentrated too on elegance because we see that as green too.

Simple enough, really, like our other bit of recycling: profits. We are not self-sacrificing; we want to cash benefits from GEPG but, if you strip away all thought of do-gooding, doing something good with money renders making it all the more pleasurable. It fits in, for example, with ameliorating my anger at what happens to the voiceless, at officials’ lies, at all those jobsworths.

It sits neatly, too, with a long-held view that those who genuinely want to fight their cause find financial backing almost impossible to achieve (as we did for 10 years and more at the Adoption Forum). GEPG is very unlikely to give any money to national children’s charities: in all thse years I attended meetings about reform, there were pitifully few admirable individuals from the big guns. The impressive ones came from the sort of groups we will favour: the small, the beleaguered, the struggling, the unrecognised. We will, hopefully, give them a bit more than a dream of a first class cream.







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