Does it get better than a gin distillery, botanic garden + cherry blossom cocktails in one afternoon?!

Meet Rosie + Anna! These guys run Independent Oxford, a directory + membership service championing the Indie businesses in and around Oxford.

Together with Visit England they organised an InstaMeet in Oxford to promote English Tourism Week. One of many MicroGaps going on in the country that weekend. I was lucky enough to get one of the 20 tickets to visit the Oxford Botanic Garden and The Oxford Artisan Distillery, my idea of total heaven - gin, botanical gardens & cherry blossom cocktails!!!

First stop was the Botanic Gardens to see where the guys at TOAD forage some of the 25 botanicals used in their Physic gin. The gardens are the oldest botanic gardens in the UK, so extra special!


Walking through the park to the distillery was a great chance to chat to some of the other Instagrammers & take a look back over the famous spires of Oxford.

Next up a tour of the distillery by the MD and one of the co-founders Tagore Ramoutar. Everyone we came across at TOAD was so passionate about their product and the unique story behind what they do, especially Tagore!

They make everything from scratch, they pride themselves on being the only distiller that produces from grain to glass. They plant their own fields with sustainably grown, organic heritage grains, they make their own neutral, & they even make their own stills (designed by the engineer behind The Flying Scotsman)!

Cory Mason, another of the co-founders and the Master Distiller behind TOAD & Silent Pool gin gave us a cocktail masterclass. I practically went into orbit when Cory started telling us about the inspiration behind the Ashmolean gin they make especially for the Ashmolean Museum. As he says every gin tells a story, and as a master storyteller as well as distiller, I highly recommend anything that this guy makes!

Every gin tells a story

Speaking to the curators and walking around the museum, Californian born, Cory started to get inspired as to where the original art collections came from. “So you have Persia, Middle East, you’ve got Northern Africa, you have Asian, Greek and Roman. So when you take the areas and you start looking at the botanicals that are important to those areas culturally, that was the starting point then for the gin itself. So things like saffron, rose, we have really interesting Middle Eastern citrus, we have mastic from Greece, we’ve got honey from Greece as well, we’ve got European juniper, English coriander. So really taking all these things, much like the museum did, as I say museums are often “where we went, the stuff we took from the people we saw”. These are just some of the 17 botanicals that go into the Ashmolean gin. Others include jasmine green tea, honey, rose petals, orris root & myrrh. Just how cool is that?!

It really was my lucky day as Cory had just created a cherry blossom gin, who am I kidding I think I died and went to heaven, two of my most favourite things on earth!! So we then got an amazing masterclass from Cory. I was even more honoured when I found out that he never gives masterclasses at the distillery. His passion for distilling and the inspiration behind his amazing creations is totally infectious!

You can book a tour at TOAD yourself and I highly recommend it, not least because you get to taste test their spirits. They are a really nice, genuine & incredibly passionate and inspiring bunch of people!


Places to Stay Spotlight: Mad Dogs & Vintage Vans

At this time of year, nestled deep within the Wye Valley, Herefordshire, you'll find four vintage caravans, Elsie, Gertie, Monty + Sybil, floating amongst glorious clouds of cow parsley! These delightfully named vintage vans have been lovingly restored by owners Jo + Sacha and are enjoying a new lease of life in their sixth season as boutique glamping accommodation.

Katie Spicer Photography - Mad Dogs & Vintage Vans

The eco friendly glampsite is the perfect place for family adventures, romantic getaways and party gatherings. It is totally off grid so you can relax, have a digital detox and sit back and enjoy the stunning sunset views to the Black Mountains.

Katie Spicer Photography - Mad Dogs & Vintage Vans

Sacha + Jo came up with the idea in 2012 and opened the van doors to their first guests in July 2013.  They started with 3 vans and over the years have added Sybil + Monty and put Darcy into semi-retirement in the Orchard.  She is only used as overflow accommodation for whole site bookings these days. 

Katie Spicer Photography - Mad Dogs & Vintage Vans

It is such a quirky place, I asked Jo + Sacha how they came up with the idea for Mad Dogs + Vintage Vans and the name!

"Back in 2012 Sacha had bought Elsie and was busy renovating her.  We knew each other from the school gate and shared a love of all things vintage and upcycled.  She asked me to come and have a look at Elsie.  I absolutely loved what Sacha was doing and before you knew it we were investigating the idea of opening a glampsite in the meadow at the bottom of the garden to take advantage of the fabulous views west to the Black Mountains.  Research showed us there was nothing like Mad Dogs out there – most glampsites consisted of bell tents, yurts or tipis.  That summer (July 2012) we embarked on a recce trip to Cornwall.  We were 3 Mums and 11 children aged 1-9. Pity the other young couples sharing the glampsite with us!   We wanted to experience glamping in rain and sun – and we got our fair share of both.  It taught us the importance of soakaways and what you need when the weather’s against you. Mad Dogs opened up the following year. Our name is a play on Mad Dogs & Englishmen and like a lot of good ideas came to me when I was in the hairdressers!  It couldn’t be more apt as we’re dog lovers and all our vans are 100% British."

Katie Spicer Photography - Mad Dogs & Vintage Vans

Following on the theme of cool names, the ladies name each van themselves. "Naming each van was as important and as big a decision as naming our kids!  They are all chosen to match the era of the van.  Elsie is named after one of Sacha’s daughters Elodie, Gertie is from the 30s, Monty is a good military name (we actually chose his name in conjunction with our social media followers via a Facebook competition) and Sybil is another ‘period’ name.  

They date from the 1930s (Gertie) though to the 1970s.  Sybil was handmade by a carpenter dad in the 40s for his family whilst Monty is a World War II design, built in the 1970s – one of the last of its type."  

Katie Spicer Photography - Mad Dogs & Vintage Vans

Each van has been lovingly restored and decorated by Sacha + Jo, who are magpies for all things vintage, retro and pretty. Scouring vintage fairs, car boot sales, French flea markets, auctions etc. for the vintage pieces in each van. "Monty had to be stripped right back, insulation added, new bow ceiling, bunks built and the deck extension added.  He had a hedonistic past enjoying life on the rave scene and travellers’ circuit.  Gertie, the oldest of our vans, dating from the 30s, needed a large dose of TLC and repairs round the window areas but considering her age, was in pretty good nick.  We love choosing the fabrics for the curtains and deciding on the colourways for the vans."

Katie Spicer Photography - Mad Dogs & Vintage Vans

I specialise in shooting for beautiful + quirky businesses like yours, and from a brand photography point of view, it's important to know how you want people to feel when they come across your brand and when they come to stay. 

"We hope people will connect with our vintage/retro vibe and aesthetic and we want them to have a super comfy, relaxing and enjoyable stay with us.  We want them to slow down, switch off their iPhones and gadgets, re-engage with nature and the Great Outdoors and savour the simple things – like building a campfire, toasting marshmallows, hearing an owl hoot and enjoying a glass of something cold whilst watching the sun set over the Black Mountains.  And lastly we want them to fall in love with the Wye Valley.  Sacha was born and bred in the Wye Valley and is a great champion of everything it has to offer."

Katie Spicer Photography Mad Dogs & Vintage Vans-1377-1.jpg

Having the joy of running your own business in common, I am always fascinated to know what people love the most about their jobs. As if you've got it right, running your own business doesn't feel like a "job" anyway! I asked Jo what she loves the most.

"So many things but nothing beats a happy glamper.  Not to be taken the wrong way but when a child leaves in tears we know we have done our job properly and created memories that will last for a long time.  Watching people unwind and watching kids make friends and run free.  We have lots of returning guests and this year I was particularly touched when a 4year old regular arrived clutching 3 cuddly soft toys, all named after our dogs.   And beautiful Spring days and summer evenings are pretty hard to beat.  May is our favourite month – the glampsite looks so pretty with the cow parsley."

Katie Spicer Photography - Mad Dogs & Vintage Vans


Serendipity so often plays a part in people setting up their businesses. "I think there’s always an element of right time, right place and chance... we were 2 mums with kids in the same year who discovered we had lots in common.  Sacha had given up a career in the veterinary world and I had said goodbye to a job in broadcasting after 18 years.  Sacha had 4 girls, I had 3 and we were both keen to find something that could work around and compliment family life.  We both shared a love of all things vintage and retro.  And we both had different skills and backgrounds to bring to the business.  Sacha was born and bred in the Wye Valley whilst I had moved down from London with a young family in 2009.    Sacha knew the vintage caravan world and which vans were worth purchasing from an investment business point of view.  I had good media contacts which would help with publicity in our early years."

Katie Spicer Photography - Mad Dogs & Vintage Vans

With a long season from Easter to the end of October, the girls welcome all sorts of guests. Couples of all ages, vintage enthusiasts and during the holidays lots of families. It is possible to hire the whole site so they also welcome lot's of hen parties wanting a vintage or festival style weekend, and  people celebrating big round number birthdays – 30ths, 40ths, 50ths.

Sacha and Jo have thought of everything, from delicious home cooked food (‘Van Service’) with veggies sourced from the garden, one pot meals, hangover brunches and handpacked picnics set up on a secluded bank of the Wye to holistic pampering treatments in their lotus bell tent. "We call this service ‘Glamp n Pamp’  and feel it is the icing on the glamping cake – what could be better than a deeply relaxing hot stone massage after a day canoeing down the River Wye?"

You can visit this beautiful haven of relaxation and adventure by hopping over to the website and booking online

Five ways to showcase your glamping site for a photoshoot

If you own a glamping site and would like photos to make it look irresistible to your customers, here are five ways you can showcase it.

  1. Tell the story - Don't just show the basics. Help them picture their whole stay with you. Capture the magic! Show the little details and the surrounding areas. These things matter to people and could sway them to book your property over another with 3 or 4 bad pictures.

  2. Prop it up - Add any props in that will help you tell your story. Lay the table ready for a romantic meal for two. Add seasonal flowers in a jar. Light candles. Showcase the al fresco dining opportunities.

  3. Remove any distractions - There might be something that fulfils a need but doesn't necessarily look good on camera. Move it! Rearrange things so that it works in the shot and helps weave the storyline. If there is something unintentional/uninteresting that draws your eye in the image, move it/cover it. Think about where you want the eye to go first in the image and make sure there are no other major distractions.

  4. Showcase your USPs - Really play up what makes you different from other similar glamping sites. Can you swim in the river? Show somebody swimming in the river! You have a solar powered open shower? Hint at somebody being in the shower! Do you go the extra mile for your customers? Tell them!

  5. Timing - Think about the best time of day to shoot it. Does it get the morning sun on the veranda? Does it have the most spectacular sunsets? Does it have different attractive features depending on the season? If possible add to your catalogue of shots with images from different times of day/seasons. Seasonal shots are fab if you want to be booked out all year round. You then need to tell a different story, one of being wrapped up together, all snug with the Autumn colours all around you and the fire on.

Always think about how you want your customers to feel and the story you are going to tell in order to achieve that. What is your brand all about? What are your ideal customers drawn to? Think about these things and make sure you get images to capture the essence of what you stand for and why they should book with you. 

It is also a good idea to shoot more than you think you need. You always need a never ending supply of images for social media. You can get more quirky with these, like the shot of feet in the shower etc!

Places to Shop Spotlight: Heron Hawker

Specialising in terrariums and interior plant design, plant lovers paradise, Heron Hawker has been open since April, this year. Being a huge plant lover and this beautiful shop being on my then doorstep (I have since moved to Oxfordshire!) I wanted to get inside owner, Rob's head, and find out about the quirky name amongst other things!

When did you first start?

"I’d been making little terrariums at home for a while, around October time 2016. I’d made some for friends and I was talking to my partner and we decided we should get out there and run a market stall. We got in contact with Tottenham Green Market which is fantastic, and we had our first stall in Feb 2017. It went OK, let’s just say we learnt a lot. So we booked on a 5 more weekends and went back, each time tweaking our setup and the sort of items we were bringing along. We also learnt incredible fast not to buy a cheap gazebo for you market stall. Unless your plan was to hold onto it for dear life in the winter winds."

How did you come up with the idea of terrariums?

"One of my best friends is really into his plants, and I learnt a lot from him. He would often bring cuttings round when he came to visit, or I stole them from his plants when I was there. It was fun learning about all the different environments they like to live in, and what suites what sort of plant. It also gave me the chance to test out different plants and see which of them I could really get on with, that I could grow and also propagate. Then I started shoving them into little jars, I think my family was forced into a jar amnesty, and I stole some sand from my parents garage. Took it all back to London and started messing around with open and dry terrariums. There were a few people making moist terrariums, things with fittonia, ferns and other leafy things. At that point I was more focused on succulents and cacti and the uniformity in their patterns. Or the craziness of them not being uniform."

How did you come up with your quirky name?

"When I was a kid I was into my aeroplanes, and we didn’t live too far away from Duxford, or the RAF museum. Whether It was school trips or trips with my family, I seemed to go there often. I liked the old school fighter planes, the Tiger moths, Sopwith Camel and the Hawker Heron. I thought about how these machines were built to help destroy things, this is about how to grow things. So I explored turning each of them around. Heron Hawker just seemed to fit perfectly."

As those of you who know me well know, I am always fascinated by the part serendipity ALWAYS plays in people's businesses... Everyone's got a story to tell!

Where has serendipity showed up in your business?

"I’ve always been someone who’s dabbled in everything. Tried loads of hobbies, different jobs and things. When you’re like that opportunities tend to arise more regularly. By doing that you meet people and the chance of something amazing happening increases. Our biggest strike of luck was a buyer from The Conran Shop followed me, and I them on my personal account. They saw what I was making and we met up again and chatted around creating a range for those guys. It’s been a fantastic relationship, we love hunting down new vessels and trying things with them. The first big order from those guys gave me the last push to quit my job from the music industry and pour my time into Heron Hawker."

What is your fave plant?

"It changes! I think deep down it’s all the different types of Haworthia. They are so indestructible but so many types to explore and grow. They have pups like mad, so they’re a good one to start with and see how much you can expand your collection. I love a big of Alocasia Wentii as their foliage is amazing, but not necessarily practical as they take up a lot of room."

What have you learnt about running a shop compared to just being wholesale and running workshops?

"I enjoy meeting everyone that comes into the shop. I feel like if they’re up for it, we can really dedicate a bit of time to them and help them find something perfect. Sometimes it’s not in the store which is when the hunting mission begins to find the most bizarre little pants. The tricky bit is that with huge Instagram and Pinterest pages showing off the most unique things, it can leave a lot people trying to find something that just isn't commercially available in the UK just yet. Logistically it’s also a little crazy as we’ve got strict opening hours now. Our dog Yolk also keeps me company in the shop during the day. In our last workshop space he would be upstairs with me, so he wouldn’t always meet the people who would come in. Now though he thinks everyone is here to see him, and sometimes to be honest, I think the same!"


Tell me more about your workshops

"We run both corporate and public workshops. They are really fun as it challenges people to get creative but it’s also hard to be disappointed with what you make, so nobody leaves feeling frustrated. You either grab a bit of glassware here, or bring a piece along and then we teach you the essentials. After that, we set you free with all the gear. It’s fun as everyone has the same elements to play with, but they all end up looking so different. We’ve done them for 5 to 95 people."

What about your other services?

"We also help interior design firms to bring the plant elements of their visions to life, which is always great fun. We get to visit some cool spaces and collaborate with the owners and designers to bring installations to life. We also help to decorate events too and have our first weddings coming up this year which is incredibly exciting. We’re making a variety of centrepieces of all different shapes and sizes."

What exciting plans have you got coming up?

"We’re about to launch our creative workshop calendar. Alongside our own terrarium workshops, we’ll be having a variety of guest workshops. We’ve found some of our favourite makers out there and offered them the space outside of trading hours to host workshops in the shop. They’ll be for around 8 people at a time, which is always the best as you get to spend so much time with the host and get to fully understand how to making something beautiful."

Heron Hawker

210 Middle Lane, Hornsey, London, N8 7LA

Places to Shop Spotlight: Hus & Hem

I want the entire range of German Blossoming candles shown here!

I want the entire range of German Blossoming candles shown here!

Tucked away from Ledbury High St, in the aptly named Design Quarter is the fabulous Hus & Hem shop. The Swedish named (House + Home) store captivates the senses as soon as you walk in. There are walls of brightly coloured objects to draw you in and an array of deliciously scented Skandinavisk candles, with names like Carved from Glaciers, Calm of the Boreal Forest and Dawn Embers (which incredibly does actually smell just like the fire the morning after!). Who isn't going to stop and smell a candle called Freshness of the Seas?!

Skandinavisk & German Blossoming candles

Skandinavisk & German Blossoming candles

Hus & Hem is not your average high street home store. It is full of all sorts of beautiful things you have never seen before. I asked Louise, the owner how she sources everything.

L: Regular trips to Europe to shows, but equally shopping in Stockholm, Copenhagen, Gotland, Paris and any other city I happen to be in. It’s the best way to find the hidden gems. We never stop looking.

I managed to catch Louise, en route to the shows in Stockholm and Paris, on one of these buying trips and asked her to share her story with us, and of course, how serendipity played her part. I always like to ask this question as she very often has a hand in things!

L: Hus & Hem opened on 1st May 2009 – just as the UK had plunged into a recession! It was a conscious decision to start the business at this time – the reasoning for this? if it works when times are tough then it can only get better! You also have to work harder and smarter, it makes you appreciate that every penny counts. It also helped that we opened on a shoestring and didn’t borrow (I originally opened with my best friend Jill, Jill sold her share of Hus & Hem to me back in 2014.)

K: Did serendipity play a part in you going into business and opening a shop at all?

L: It did indeed! An appointment was made on a chilly day in March 2009 to see an estate agent in Ledbury about the possibility of any shops coming up. The appointment was for 2.30pm, with a little time to spare I wandered into a little shop that was called The Orangery, it had always been one of my favourite little shops, a great location, perfect size, and off the High Street, all the requirements that were on the wish list. I walked around the shop and just as I was leaving, Mandy the owner, mentioned that sadly they were closing the shop! I said nothing and promptly went over to the appointment with the estate agent. I said I had found my perfect shop and what should I do. Go and tell them he said! We arranged to have a drink in a local pub that evening and Hus & Hem was born (well not quite Hus & Hem as it was nameless at that point). We had found a shop in 20 minutes and we opened in 8 weeks!

K: What do you look for when picking a supplier?

L: I am rather impulsive! I often have that moment of ‘I want it’ I stick with this gut instinct! It may be slightly off the wall, and often the girls will say no we are not having that (we tend to buy as a group, myself Lily (Louise's daughter) and Lucinda in various combinations. It can be easier buying as a group as obviously if we all love it then it’s a definite order) Sometimes I just have to have something, they both object and I buy it anyway, they are often the gems! And obviously I can say ‘I told you so’ only when it does sell really well, if it doesn’t I just say nothing! I have to really want it; we never have anything in the shop just because we think we can sell it. If I am quibbling whether to order then it’s a no.

All the colours!

All the colours!

K: Can you tell us about your brand ethos and what is important to you?

L: We have to love it - Simple as that! It simply has to make the heart sing. I could go on for hours about this question...

K: How do you get around a common problem in retail and beautifully merchandise when you have overstock?

L: We try not to overstock. We order small and often on the majority of products. We like to have new stock arriving regularly to keep the stock fresh and customers coming back, there is nothing worse than seeing the same stock in the same place month after month, this stops that problem, it also helps when you have a good relationship with your supplier! Many have become good friends.

Beautifully merchandised stock. Isn't this display very restful to look at?

Beautifully merchandised stock. Isn't this display very restful to look at?

K: Why is being off the high street important to you?

L: Rent and rates are cheaper!! Only joking, well sort of! We are so lucky we were offered our building at breeze block stage, we could configure it to our own spec – how often would you ever have this happen in a rural Market town. A brand new shiny building that even looks Scandinavian from the outside. The original little shop was also up an alleyway, 16 paces off the high street, it worked there, we reasoned the new one would too, although it was much further off the high street, it had a great approach, and more importantly you could see it from the pavement. People often say they are drawn up, I like this, they discover us and they have to put in a little bit of effort, they have to make a conscious choice to keep on walking up the alleyway. This makes customers feel as if they have discovered us, I think they like that. We can also have our doors open in the summer without the noise of the traffic; you just hear the birds singing.

K: What do you wish you had known when you first started Hus & Hem? What piece of advice would you give yourself back then?

L: Now I found this question really difficult. I can’t think of anything. I just asked Lucinda the question and she came up with ‘until you totally give up you don’t really know’. When you run your own business you just change something if it doesn’t work, I honestly can’t think of anything of any importance, obviously there’s loads of small things like paying in different currencies and the amount of paperwork you have to do on a day to day basis. Luckily I quite like paperwork!

I love Louise's attitude of starting "against the odds" during a recession, knowing that if you can survive that, you'll be just fine!

Next time you are in Ledbury be sure to pop in and try some of the INCREDIBLE salted caramel Lakrids liquorice sweets! They also have an online store with their beautiful homewares helpfully showcased by room and by brand, so you can shop to your hearts content!

Hus & Hem, The Design Quarter, 12 High Street, Ledbury, Herefordshire, HR8 1DS, UK

All images taken by Katie Spicer & may not be reproduced without permission.


Places to Shop Spotlight: The Goring Grocer

Trained chefs Stuart & Caroline Pierrepoint were moving to Dorset. They had sold their cafe in the beautiful village of Goring-on-Thames, next to the North Wessex Downs and were ready for the off! Their house sale fell through at the last minute, which serendipitously turned into them buying an empty shop in the same village and creating their third business and foodie heaven, The Goring Grocer, in November 2015

Lauren serving behind the counter

Lauren serving behind the counter

It is a total delight on the senses, as everything is beautifully merchandised and the food all looks and smells delicious. Owner Stuart creates the delicious food on site every day, along with the talented Alison. As you can watch them creating at the back of the shop, it is easy to ask them what they are making and whether things are gluten free (in my case, as I am Coeliac!). They are always open to suggestions from their customers.

Having been trading in the village for 16 years, they have already built up the know, like and trust factor and have a big fan base for Stuart’s cooking!

You only have to walk past the outside of the shop to know that it is definitely somewhere you want to go in.


The visual merchandising in the shop really makes the already visually appealing products even more irresistible. Caroline says she has no background in it but being on a small budget generally makes you more creative! Once inside, you know it is definitely somewhere you will be buying something, whether for your lunch or as a gift for someone else.

Two Cocks Brewery

Two Cocks Brewery

They have some really cool packaged products, such as the bottles from Two Cocks Brewery with real feathers on! This is entirely intentional and one of their brand values: to sell quality, interesting and beautifully packaged products from small producers in the UK.

Stuart + Caroline get their inspiration from Instagram and by reading up on products and visiting other farm shops and delis. Provenance is important to them and their customers and they pride themselves in stocking products you wouldn't necessarily find in the supermarkets.

They have some really cool packaged products, such as the bottles from Two Cocks Brewery with real feathers on! This is entirely intentional and one of their brand values: to sell quality, interesting, beautifully packaged products from small producers in the UK.

Stuart & Caroline get their inspiration from Instagram and by reading up on products and visiting other farm shops and delis. Provenance is important to them and their customers and they pride themselves on stocking products that you wouldn’t necessarily find in supermarkets.

The power of the independent shop is back on the up!

If you are passing I can highly recommend their squash, red rice, quinoa, rocket, goats cheese & sun dried tomato pot for lunch, especially if you are Coeliac like me!

The Goring Grocer, 17a High Street, Goring on Thames, RG8 9AR

All images taken by Katie Spicer & may not be reproduced without permission.