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Hungry silkworms, white mulberry leaves and royal robes: the tale of the UK's first silk farm at Lullingstone Castle, Kent

When our current Queen walked down the aisle in her bridal gown in 1947, few knew that the silk her gown was made from was produced by thousands of hardworking silk worms from Kent.

Now home to the World Garden, Lullingstone Castle near Eynsford was once home to the UK's first silk farm which had also produced the silk for her coronation robes and her mother's coronation robes before her in 1937.

Zoe Hart Dyke with silk cocoons at Lullingstone
Zoe Hart Dyke with silk cocoons at Lullingstone

Established by Lady Zoe Hart Dyke, Tom Hart Dyke's paternal grandmother, in the early 1930s, it was quite the operation - with some 30 rooms in the house given over to breeding hundreds of thousands of silkworms, and more than 20 acres of the estate to mulberry bushes to feed them.

The hungry worms, which had originally been imported from China, were fed white mulberry leaves (Morus Alba), for 35 days non-stop until they increase their weight over 10,000 times. For many who worked at and visited the farm, their overriding memory of them was the terrible stench they produced.

Dartford's Sir Mick Jagger, who visited the farm as a young boy, recalled: "There was such an awful smell."

Another visitor of the time recalled seeing two gas marks at the entrance to the house, which were there in case anyone couldn't stand the smell of the silkworms.

Silk cocoons - each one could make a quarter of a mile of silk
Silk cocoons - each one could make a quarter of a mile of silk

"The smell was quite terrible. We were allowed to buy a cocoon and I did, keeping it in the hot water cupboard. My mother was not amused when she was sweeping up caterpillars that were going down the stairs."

Each silkworm's cocoon produced a quarter of a mile of silk, though, sadly for the silkworms, they perished in the production process.

The farm - the country's first - was started by Lady Zoe and was credited with reviving the 'art of sericulture' in this country (the production of silk and the rearing of silkworms for it) after she turned what had been a childhood passion into a flourishing business. Tom Hart Dyke's paternal grandfather, Sir Oliver, also designed, produced and installed machines to reel the cocoons - 'power' reelers - which were then manufactured for export.

Silk had also been used in parachutes during the Second World War.

Lullingstone Castle Picture: Alan Graham
Lullingstone Castle Picture: Alan Graham

Lady Zoe's son, Guy Hart Dyke, helped out on the farm in November 1947, with forewoman Mabel Standen. He said: "I remember the smell and the rustle of the worms, munching the mulberry leaves. You also had to be careful not to slam the doors - the draught could kill them."

In 1947 the farm was commissioned to produce silk for an altar frontal for the Church of St Botolph, which now hangs in Queen Anne's bedroom in the house for visitors to see.

Its royal links continued throughout the years. Queen Mary visited in 1936 and the farm later produced silk for Princess Diana's wedding dress though it had been sold and moved to Dorset by then.

Granny Zoe at Lullingstone Castle
Granny Zoe at Lullingstone Castle

Lullingstone has displays on the history of the Silk Farm and memorabilia, though it is not currently open. To keep up to date on when it will next open, visit lullingstonecastle.co.uk

To read more about the World Garden click here.

For more features, and to find out the latest on events and venues across Kent, click here.

Guy Hart Dyke at the Lullingstone Castle silk farm with forewoman Mabel
Guy Hart Dyke at the Lullingstone Castle silk farm with forewoman Mabel
Lullingstone Castle is now home to the World Garden
Lullingstone Castle is now home to the World Garden

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