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Humans of Frome: Kate Williams

Kate Williams – photography by Ciara Nolan

“If you can dream it, you can do it.” These are the words spoken at the end of my interview with Kate Williams, owner of the well-known and loved ‘Herbs on the Hill’ on Frome’s Catherine Hill. Words that she lives by!

Kate is the only person I know who commutes to work in Frome from her dream home in the hills overlooking Malaga, Spain. A four-hour trip, door-to-door, that costs as little as £14.99 per ticket and replaces the London commute that she undertook for many years.

Not too bad a replacement, when you consider the cost of train tickets in the UK and the regular occurrence of the train terminating at Westbury Station leaving stressed Frome-bound passengers stranded for hours in the wee small hours of the night.

Moving to Spain was a bold move, and not one that many would have the nerve to make. Where has the courage to make such a drastic and pioneering life change come from?

Kate arrived in Frome via New Zealand (where she was born), Hong Kong, China, Canada, Malta and many other countries. Her family have been moving internationally for their careers or better prospects for generations and neither she nor they have ever been limited by the constraints of a semi-detached in British suburbia.

Her formative years of travel fed her young senses. She describes each of her childhood homes through a selection of senses. Hong Kong was a visual feast, Malta was a fragrant bouquet, New Zealand was a visceral landscape where she loved discovering the native flora and fauna.

Nothing is ever perfect, however, and so much travel meant that she had a lot of ‘starting again’ to do at school. Labelled as ‘slow’ academically, she remembers overhearing a conversation in which the speakers despaired at her educational plight. “Everything in me screamed don’t write me off, don’t write me off!” she says.

A woman who lives by her word, Kate proved everybody wrong when, at the age of 14 she started her first foray into something that she realises she has a natural ability for – sales.

The purchase of a notebook that had been committed to a hidden existence in a stock room led the young entrepreneur to offer her services selling old stock that couldn’t be shifted in store on a market stall at weekends.

This arrangement was borne out of a challenge laid down by the store owner. She continued on the market stall throughout her teens until she went to Carlisle to study Small Metals and Textiles.

Her family moved back to Canada; now living alone in a Carlisle bedsit, the broke 19 year old Kate realised that she needed to take drastic action and fast.

Resplendent in a medieval style gown complete with pet cat on her shoulder, she visited her local job centre to throw herself on their mercy.

When asked what her ultimate dream job was, Kate managed to talk the surprised job centre employee through her elaborate business plan for a shop selling art supplies.

Fate intervened and she was placed on a TEC Start scheme which, on completion, the best business plan won £3,000 for start up and £25 per week to support entrepreneurs to get their businesses off the ground.

Kate was the youngest person to ever receive the grant. She didn’t let them down and went on to run her shop ‘Chimo’ until she completed her HND in Design Crafts and left Carlisle for the headiness of a new life in Bath.

Settled in Bath and working numerous jobs just to pay rent, Kate felt drawn to a herbal science course. She hasn’t looked back since.

The combination of her retail sales experience, sensory childhood and an innate ability and understanding of working with herbs (which may well come from the ancestral link to John and Thomas Bartram, the famous 18th Century herbalists and botanists) led to a chain of shops around the country.

£400 borrowed from her mother to make her first products to sell on a market eventually led to a move from the markets in Cardiff, Camden and Portobello (amongst others) to brick and mortar shops in Covent Garden, Camden and Bath and beyond.

The enterprising young Kate couldn’t make her products fast enough to supply the demand. Commuting from Bath to London with a young baby in tow began to take its toll. Following an unpleasant encounter with the kind of accountant you’d want to avoid at all costs, Kate sadly ended up walking away from her business choosing time with her son and strong ethics over her business investor who also further wanted to strip her of her product recipes.

A horrible experience, but Kate came out fighting and has retained her popular recipes to this day as the gloriously fragrant apothecary on our own Catherine Hill will attest.

Despite the move to Spain, Kate has no intention of moving her business elsewhere. Frome is the only town that she has ever felt truly at home in; she has a wonderful network of friends and loyal customers here and she loves returning monthly to work.

However, a diagnosis of chronic sarcoidosis has forced her to take a long hard look at how environmental factors affect her health and despite everything Frome has to offer it just can’t guarantee the weather.

Now living and working from home in Spain and commuting to Frome, Kate has the best of both worlds. As the lady says herself ‘If you can dream it, you can do it.’

www.herbsonthehill.co.

By Ciara Nolan

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