The Robora Meets: Bella Middleton, founder of Norfolk Natural Living

“I fell in love with the idea that with a little care, we can preserve our clothes and possessions for the next generation and share those stories and in doing so, experience so much pleasure from the process.” Bella Middleton, founder of Norfolk Natural Living, on work and life…

Bella lives in Norfolk with her husband and three children.

Describe Norfolk Natural Living in one sentence…
Norfolk Natural Living is a slow luxury cleaning and garment care brand with nature and craftsmanship at its core.

What inspired you to start this business?
It was a good few years ago, when my daughter was about three weeks old, in a rare moment of quiet I decided to clear out the loft whilst she was sleeping. As I was moving boxes around, I stumbled across a trunk full of my childhood clothes in a somewhat dusty and forgotten corner. Opening it was a wild journey back in time.

It was full of amazing dresses and shirts all with different wonderful memories – there was one multicoloured striped dress with matching pants from my first school dance which made me laugh out loud (it was horrid). My first pair of pink slip-on shoes – oh I how I loved them, and amongst other things, one tiny tiny cardigan my grandmother had knitted for me.

I couldn’t believe it had lasted so long and it now fitted my daughter. It was such a wonderful feeling and I was so thankful my mother had saved all these clothes for me and wrapped them so carefully. I love the idea of my children wearing the clothes I had worn and adding their own memories to mine.

That trunk started Norfolk Natural Living; I fell in love with the idea that with a little care, we can preserve our clothes and possessions for the next generation and share those stories and in doing so, experience so much pleasure from the process.

Describe an average working week…
Every day is different, juggling the children and the shop and new product development is sometimes a little difficult. And sometimes I do feel a little torn between the two, I’m not sure there’s a working mum in the land who doesn’t feel a bit like that. We are so conditioned to feeling guilty! I read something about French mentality and they work and apparently don’t feel the guilt – and I so wish I had a bit more of that in me!

Anyway – I start each day with one of my three children waking me up, we breakfast together, then I drop my son off at school – and I race to my workshop I either call my mum on the way to check in with her before she goes to the shop and have a natter, but if she’s busy I’ll listen to a bit of Radio 6 on the way, music has such a wonderful effect on my mood, if there’s a good beat I bounce into the workshop!

Once I arrive, I’ll catch up with the team, answer emails, create product and look at new packaging options etc as I’m always looking to improve and for new more sustainable options. We have a small team who bottle, make and ship out all our products and we all work together in the workshop in Norfolk.

I very much believe in teamwork – so there’s often days when we all have to stop what we are doing to help pack a large order or label the bottles. It’s very, very ‘all hands on deck’ philosophy, but we’re a small company, so it’s important we work together – and personally I wouldn’t want it any other way.

My shop is run by my mother (who is a constant source of inspiration for me) I feel very lucky to have her support. It is situated in the coastal town of Holt, Norfolk, it’s such a wonderful high street – full of independents. They have a festival and fireworks and amazing Christmas lights in the winter – so it is a brilliant little town to be a part of.

The store had its first anniversary last month and we have been welcomed by the townsfolk and really feel part of the community. Which is so important to me, one of the main reasons I wanted to create Norfolk Natural Living was to build a sense of community – where we share our hints and tips to make our lives more simple. And there is nothing like a little shop in a bustling town to help with that!

My day generally finishes about 3.30 when I collect my littlest children and then my son from school and we roll on home to play, do a little gardening or cooking, at some point my husband returns from work about 5ish and then we put the children to bed together.

Biggest success, work-wise?
I’ve been super lucky to have collaborated with some fantastic brands – we created a denim wash for The Worker’s Club which was really exciting – we had to work on creating a wash that helps to preserve the indigo – specifically for selvedge denim. It was really hard work, but I had such a sense of achievement once we had the right formulation and now it’s stocked in Mrporter.com which I’m super proud of.

Biggest flop?
Well one of the hundreds, has to be when I was working on the formulation of our scented vinegar – I thought a Sea Salt fragrance would be really great – I failed to realise it would just smell like Fish and Chips..! So now there’s just Rose and Lavender. Phew.

On a more serious note – there are many flops – too many to count if I’m realistic. I guess I’ve got a mentality not to focus on mistakes, a little like childbirth, my mind has a fantastic ability to forget it. I guess it’s part of self preservation – I figure you can talk yourself into and out of doing anything. Therefore the only real question is, do you want to do it? If it’s a yes, then do it. There will be consequences – some will be good and some inevitably will be bad. Hopefully the good will out-way the bad, and you’ll be as forgetful as me (!)

How do you spend your weekends?
I spend my weekends with my family – we chill, play and relax. Sometimes we have friends to stay, which is always wonderful and our routine doesn’t really change, we always have Sunday lunch which my husband cooks (and my son is a sucker for ‘grown-up breakfast’ which is just breakfast in the dining room but I think he loves the sense of occasion, so we generally do that too on Saturday or Sunday).

I try to keep work to work days and my weekend to my children and husband. I really don’t like phones, so although I don’t always manage it, I try and keep my phone in a drawer from Friday night to Sunday night. It’s so easy to be distracted and I want my children to know they’re my focus when they’re awake and when they’re asleep, I love to read the newspaper or at least look at the pictures of the magazines if I’m too tired to read!

As a couple we try not to watch TV on Friday night, so we can dine together and chat – we live in the countryside and there is not always an opportunity to dine out. So rather embarrassingly… as I have a wardrobe full of clothes I can’t wear to work – I wear them to ‘date nights’ at home. It feels great to carve out time together – I put on a pretty dress, light a candle, play a little music… have a glass of wine or two, it’s great I look forward to it all week.

In a dream world: one year from now, where would you be and what would you be doing?
We would love to encourage even more people to shop small and become a part of the eco-cleaning movement. In today’s current climate, it’s important to take a more responsible approach to our lifestyle choices in order to protect the environment and our health. I really do believe life is enough of a challenge without having to worry about what is in our cleaning products let alone our food. My dream would be doing what I’m already doing – but hopefully more of it – I would like to have more than one shop and have started on my book… There’s a lot to do if I’m to achieve that. Yikees.

Browse our products and ideas for eco-conscious living at norfolknaturalliving.com follow us on instagram @norfolknaturalliving