As I walk into Christopher Place the Oska diffuser is billowing out its spicy, wintry scent across the threshold of Neal’s Yard. I open the door and step into a white and blue interior. Inside, vibrant evergreen and berries decorate the clean contemporary space. Shiny blue glass bottles are neatly arranged into sections, reflecting the shop lighting.

I was so happy when we finally got our very own Neal’s Yard in St Albans and often pop in for the odd essential oil to add to my collection. I make up a small bottle containing almond oil and add up to five drops of warming essential oils such as ginger and orange in the winter. In the summer I’ll make up a fresh bottle with zingy scented oils such as lime, juniper and grapefruit. Self-massaging my arms and legs with it in the evening leaves me feeling relaxed.

I wander around and enjoy discovering what this year’s Christmas bundles contain sipping a turmeric and ginger tea that I’ve just poured from a large flask on a side table; it tastes utterly perfect for the yuletide season! A small diffuser is emitting puffs of steam carrying an uplifting fragrance that subtly lifts my mood.

Behind the counter are rows of wide glass jars filled with an abundance of herbs that I’ve never even heard of from chaste berry to skullcap. I’m intrigued by the contrasting colours of the flowers, leaves, fruit and roots.

I first got into the habit of mixing essential oils with bath oil and body creams when I was 17 and landed a summer job at the Body Shop. A few years later, when I was at university I briefly worked at Culpeper, an amazing apothecary in Bruton Street. I loved learning all about herbs and aromatherapy from those old books written by Nicholas Culpeper, the 17th century English herbalist.

Neal’s Yard is the UK’s first certified organic health and beauty brand and all botanical ingredients are ethically sourced. It offered minimal packaging in navy blue glass bottles long before the word “climate change” was ever coined, the shop doesn’t seem to have changed very much over the years which is a good thing. Judging from the packaging, the company was into the whole ‘sustainability’ thing since its very beginnings in 1981 in Covent Garden. It is still a family run business today with over 50 stores; the Kindersley’s, who purchased it over a decade ago, are clearly advocates of organic living and have continued the holistic approach to health and beauty, maintaining its original values.

This time of year, I always buy a few stocking fillers here. The soaps are mild and last forever and the aromatherapeutic hand creams always feel so nourishing on my skin. Apparently, our sense of smell is thousand times more sensitive than our sense of taste and has an immediate effect on our nervous system and hormones.

I chat with Carol, who is relatively new to the company and attends training days in Covent Garden; she’s getting to know some of the regular customers who have been shopping at Neal’s Yard for over 25 years! I am shown the wild rose beauty balm. Carol refers to it as the ‘hero product’ as it’s so versatile and can be used as a hand cream, a lip balm, on cuticles, as a cleanser and a moisturiser, perfect when going away for the weekend. Her personal favourite is the lavender pillow mist which she finds very soothing at bedtime; she also recommends sinking into an aromatic bath of seaweed and arnica bath salts after a long day at work.

I‘m drawn to an essential oil in a little red box, the festive aromatherapy blend, packed with cloves, oranges, pine and maybe a little incense and myrrh! It’s Christmas in a tiny bottle and surely must be what Father Christmas pours into his steaming bath after doing all his rounds!

I close my eyes and take a deep breath; memories of Christmases past flood back. I can see my godmother’s face now, watching me tearing off the pink wrapping from her huge gift to me, and how my heart took flight when I discovered that it was a doll that could walk, talk and even wee that I‘d been dreaming of! Carol smiles warmly as I reminisce: “Yes, our sense of smell is highly emotive!”

  • Marisa Laycock moved from south west London to St Albans in 2000. She enjoys sharing her experiences of living in the city.