The Hampshire company bringing about a change to drinking habits
- Credit: Archant
Deep below the Test Valley, natural mineral water is waiting to begin its journey to tables around the globe. Viv Micklefield meets the royally appointed company bringing about a refreshing change to our drinking habits
Conversations at the start of a meal out often take-on a familiar ring. “The set menu looks good, but, maybe, let’s go with the à la carte?” “Are the puddings home-made?” “Does red wine go better than white?” And, before long: “Which is it to be, still or sparkling mineral water?”
The fact that this last question is even up for discussion just goes to show how far we Brits have come during the past 30 years. Despite our imperial ancestors opting not to drink the local tap water and passengers on board the Titanic reportedly quaffing mineral water alongside their Möet, post-war it was typically only whilst holidaying overseas that a smug rejection of the mains supply occurred. However, it seems that just as Perrier’s marketing juggernaut was revving-up for a big push across the Channel during the 1980s, something pretty revolutionary was also happening at Hampshire’s Hildon Estate.
In a twist of fate, Hamburg-born entrepreneur and art dealer Christian Leopold Heppe, had been searching for some flat land on which to run his polo horses. Having found the perfect spot at Broughton, near Romsey, a 60-metre borehole was discovered in the deeds and, by 1989, Hildon Natural Mineral Water was flowing in some of the world’s most exclusive hotels and restaurants. “He loved everything English,” says Debbie Jones, Hildon’s executive director and environmental manager, remembering the company’s founder who sadly passed away last year. “This included our native trees and landscapes, you only have to look at what’s here.”
The view from Debbie’s office window says it all. “We sit in the centre of 165 acres, it’s an old farm and we look after the three fields surrounding us, which back on to more fields, creating a wildlife corridor. Our land is allowed to go to meadow which a local farmer comes and cuts for hay. A few years ago, a couple of big trees came down in a thunderstorm, so the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust came in and moved them to another area to change the diversity there.” She adds: “Dead wood is fantastic for encouraging species like termites. I really wanted to have bees on the site too, and there are now three colonies.”
That environmental stewardship is taken so seriously here, might come as a surprise. Yet what’s soon apparent is its importance to the natural mineral water’s provenance which Debbie, along with the rest of Hildon’s 65-strong team, is passionate about.
“Water falls from the skies. It then takes around 50 years to filter down through the chalk strata, which is our natural filter, before arriving in an underground aquifer. The borehole is sunk down to the top of this and we pull water up through it. You can’t even see the wellhead. The water never sees the light of day, travelling through underground pipework and, bar removing any remaining chalk particles and micro filtering, it’s bottled and the cap goes on.”
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With minerals absorbed as the water passes down through several different soil types, this results in a clean, well-balanced flavour. Strict laws for the extraction, bottling and labelling of mineral water dictate that it must come from an officially recognised source, and that the water is not treated in any way that alters its purity. Ensuring a stable mineral composition is key, so regular checks are made to confirm no chemical or microbiological pollutants are evident. Only then, can it be sold as “natural mineral water”.
“We were the very first company to introduce a 750ml Bordeaux style shaped bottle,” says fellow executive director and operations manager Simon Prosser. He continues: “It was designed specially. And now, if you look around, there are plenty of copy-cats. You could say, it’s a compliment to how successful we have been.”
The signature glass bottle was all part of Heppe’s masterplan to ensure it would look an appropriate table companion to fine wine. And with the distinctive turquoise label having barely changed either, his assertion that Hildon was all about an appreciation of “life’s little luxuries” was cemented when it became the first bottled water to scoop a prestigious Chef’s Choice award in 2013.
Should further proof be needed of Hildon’s consistently top notch quality, having supplied the Royal Household for five years, the ultimate accolade was granted just a few months ago.
“We worked really hard to achieve the Royal Warrant of Appointment,” says sales and marketing manager James Burston. “It’s a long process, the main part being that you have to prove you are a sustainable and ethical business, which we are.
“I’ve worked in the drinks industry for over 20 years, and it’s probably the most competitive product category that I’ve ever known,” James admits. “Although, we now have our partnership with Help for Heroes (since 2016) which enables us to get Hildon Water in front of more customers across the UK.”
This, he says, is important, because despite the swing in favour of a healthier lifestyle and around 70 million litres of water being extracted each year, Hildon remains a relative minnow. That said, having supplied the likes of Harrods and Fortnum and Mason since early days, they are gaining an increasing number of trade customers and distributors. And, according to Simon: “People like the fact that we’re privately owned and still run like a family business,” one of the reasons he says that their UK-wide home delivery service, introduced in 2003, is growing year-on-year.
Across the world, Hildon natural mineral water can be found in more than 30 countries. “When I first started in 2002, we were exporting to mainly European markets. Mr Heppe’s connections in Germany allowed us to be one of the first waters there, and even in France, there was a demand for premium quality English water,” Simon recalls. “Our largest export country now is Dubai and we’ve been selling into Hong Kong and Kuwait for a number of years.”
Interestingly, the volume of still to sparkling water consumed, defined by the permitted addition or removal of carbon dioxide, varies from country to country. Whereas in the UK, it’s roughly, 60:40 in favour of still, in the rest of Europe they are much keener on sparkling. “Whereas India has never really experienced sparkling water, still is all they know.”
In 2014 Hildon celebrated its 25th birthday by building a new, state-of-the-art bottling line, part of a £4.5million plan to meet increasing global demand. And, in addition, Debbie points out the company’s ongoing investment in the Hildon Foundation, set-up to support causes close to its heart such as the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Community Foundation. “Here in the Test Valley, at Naomi House (the children’s hospice at Sutton Scotney) we’ll donate whatever’s needed. This could be help with stone washing and leaf clearing, or volunteering as marshals and supplying the water at their sponsored Clarendon Way Walk.”
Turning off a leafy lane, the long drive towards Hildon Mineral Water leads to a collection of low, unassuming buildings. From an environmental perspective, that’s just the way that they want to preserve things here. Because it is, as it’s always been, all about the precious resource below their feet.
“We are very lucky with our location,” says Debbie “We follow the legacy of Mr Heppe and ensure that we treasure it.”
Royal Warrant: What is it?
A Royal Warrant of Appointment is a mark of recognition for those who have supplied goods or services to the Households of The Queen, The Duke of Edinburgh or The Prince of Wales for at least five years, and who have an ongoing trading arrangement. Look out for organisations across Hampshire displaying this mark of approval.
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