• Cathy Crozier-Cole

An Unexpected Journey

All journeys are in some ways unexpected – you can’t always predict the final outcome when you start. But sometimes life throws more unexpected elements at you than usual. I think that’s how many of us will remember 2020.

Cathy Crozier-Cole from Umbel on Little Solsbury Hill, Bath, with dried flowers

Little Solsbury Hill in Bath in January 2020

My journey towards the launch of Umbel began in the summer of 2018, when I took a deep breath and decided to quit my job in sustainable energy. Big changes had happened in my life; they demanded a big and brave response. I decided that the time had come to follow my long held dream of starting a sustainable, local cut flower business. I retrained: I took a course and read every single book on cut flower growing I could find. And I picked up a garden fork and got digging.

I charted myself a course: first I would test my ability to grow successfully, then I would test my skills in floristry. By the end of 2019 I would decide which business model would suit me best, choose a business name, develop a brand, learn photography, set up my back office systems – in fact, everything that’s needed to launch a new business (and gosh, it’s a lot!) – and I would finally be ready to roll come spring 2020. Project managing a house refurbishment over the winter was an extra challenge thrown into the mix, causing a temporary diversion. But eventually it was March, and the dawn of a new growing season. Now it was time to focus and get going.

Except that of course, it wasn’t. On March 20th our daughters were sent home from school, clutching their school books, the school gates clanging shut behind them. Like everyone else around the world, we reeled from the changes that life and Covid-19 were throwing our way. Among flower growers, debate was raging: were flowers essential? (No). Was it ethical to leave your house in order to visit your cutting patch, risking contact and possible contagion for others for an activity that wasn’t essential? (Probably not). Even if lockdown lifted, did anyone want to buy flowers amid a global health crisis and with a probable recession to follow? (Highly unknown).

Faced with such uncertainty, and a host of more pressing challenges on the home front that parents everywhere will no doubt recognise: “Mum, how do I log on to my history lesson?”, “Why does the wifi keep cutting out?”, “Can you help me with my Macbeth analysis?”, “Can I have a snack?”, “When’s lunch?”, I decided to abandon all previous plans and refocus on the family’s needs. Housework had expanded with everyone now working at home, and the weekly shop now took half a day. Mothers across the country were starting to wonder if they’d been teleported back to the 1950s. By Easter, our family had contracted Covid (quite how remains a mystery, given that we barely left the house), and we were on the long road of post-viral recovery. How different 2020 was looking to the one we’d imagined.

But then, just as we started to get our heads around it all, things began to change again. We got better. Our broadband got fixed; our daughters settled into a new pattern with school work. We managed to restock the food cupboard. My maternal blue-light stopped flashing quite as frantically. And what was emerging as one of the top buys on people’s online shopping lists? Flowers.

Flowers help connect us. They help us say the big things in life that sometimes we can’t say with words. They convey love, and thought and care. When the one thing we want to do is give someone a hug, but can’t, flowers make a pretty good second best. During lockdown, people sent flowers to loved ones, elderly relatives they couldn’t visit, friends whose birthdays they couldn’t be there to celebrate, thank-yous to tired front-line workers. As our global and import-reliant supply chains broke down, people turned to local and British flowers to fill the breach. Flowers were having a bit of an unexpected Covid moment.

And so I started to sow again. As I recovered, I worked on my website, and took the brave step (for me!) to start posting on Instagram. I potted on and planted out; I took on a part time job to help steady our financial course; I scoped out local supply partners and took on help in the garden to help me manage my time; I cut and arranged and took photographs. If the destination wasn’t always entirely clear, I trusted that the direction was right.

Now it’s summer, and the flowers are blooming. Lockdown is easing, and we’re all gradually feeling our way into the new pattern of our lives. As we start to emerge, we’re all taking a deep breath and wondering: what next?

I’m not sure I can entirely answer that for myself right now – there are just too many unknowns: will the schools have to close again? What will it all mean for the economy? When will events start up again and how long will social distancing be in place? But I do know that since summer 2018 my motto has been: “One Day or Day One: You decide” – and that still rings just as true as it ever did. Every journey starts with a moment when you open the door, sniff the air, and summon the courage to step out. And that first step’s the most important one of all.

So today is my Day One, and I’m stepping out. What happens next – well, that’s all part of the unfolding, unexpected journey. I’m just glad to be on it – and happy to be meeting you along the way.