It started with two ocean-loving free spirits, global travellers and conservationists — one from England, one from Holland. After years of sailing, surfing, studying and helping communities from Honduras to the Philippines, they met at Exeter University organising a rainforest expedition to Borneo. The ebb and flow of the tides separated them, then reunited them on the rocky shores of Cornwall’s Atlantic coast. Here’s the story of the Cornish Seaweed Co. founders and how they hand-harvest one of the ocean’s most beneficial prehistoric plants.
“We were both living in caravans just 10 metres apart on the coast,” says Co-founder, Tim van Berkel. “Caro (Warwick-Evans, Co-founder) was scrubbing boats and I was working as a waiter and translator here and there. There was no work for what we wanted to do, we were struggling to make ends meet.”
That was in 2012. Things looked pretty bleak. But the solution to their problem was right under their noses. “We spent most of our time in the ocean, surfing, sailing, fishing, diving,” says Caro. “I was inspired by a radio program about the health and nutritional benefits of seaweed. I thought: ‘Seaweed is everywhere in Cornwall, but no-one is harvesting it. Why not?’”
That’s the moment Caro and Tim became ‘seaweeders’. Caro invited Tim to join her on a voyage that would not only change their lives but bring the healthy, nutritional benefits of fresh, wild seaweed to people around the country through food and skincare, as well as helping to solve the ocean and the planet’s problems too. They went on a seaweed training trip and returned to Cornwall to set up the UK’s first sustainable, hand-harvested seaweed company.
The venture was so groundbreaking the UK regulatory bodies and licensing authorities weren’t ready for it — no-one had done it before. They would also go on to help write the UK’s code of conduct with Natural England. They eventually got a UK license to harvest seaweed and started collecting different species on the shoreline at low tide and drying it in their caravans. “But people didn't believe in seaweed,” says Tim. “No-one was really paying attention to it. They had never heard of the abundant nutritional benefits of using seaweed in cooking, let alone the benefits of using it in a skincare product.”
They built a drying shed out of reclaimed wood, worked around the clock on the new venture alongside part-time jobs, and set a course to educate the world about seaweed.
Slowly, the funding started to drip into the business. A few grants here and there, a bit of press, some European funding and local entrepreneurial support. Then it went big. In 2014 the media picked it up, the usual celebrity chefs started cooking with their seaweed. More national press, cooking programs, Sky News.
Then a major retailer wanted a piece of the Cornish sea. “They were really behind us and our cause, they loved the provenance. Plus, at that point there was no fresh seaweed in the supermarkets for people to cook with at home.”
They invested in an office, poly tunnels for drying, and a boat (the Cornish Sea Badger) which freed them from the constraints of the tide, allowing them to harvest in deeper waters any time they liked, with snorkel masks, weight belts and wet suits.
Tim says: “It was a huge relief. We had been slogging away at it, then it finally started to pick up. It was just fantastic. It ticked all our boxes: lifestyle, sustainability, healthy eating and working in a stunning, local environment. Seaweed is a remarkable product; to be able to provide it to people outside of Cornwall is just a dream.”
But, this far along their ocean voyage, the cause still runs deep through the veins of these wild Cornish seaweeders. What started as two free-spirited travellers with a dream has exploded into a national business with staff, premises and global attention
“People ask us, ‘what happens when you get big? How do you stay sustainable, small scale?’” says Tim. “I am not an entrepreneur. I just like to care for this world. And seaweed has the power to do that, even if you scale up production."
“We only harvest by hand, we don’t disturb the ecosystem, it’s small scale," adds Tim. "And we can prove it’s sustainable — when we return to the same stretch of coastline each year it’s grown back, in many cases more than it was before.”
The only tool is a pair of scissors. The harvesters only trim a few leaves from each plant, which invigorates growth. Seaweed is also notorious for growing back at astonishing rates (some species grow 60 times faster than most vegetables).
Tim and Caro are excited about this next chapter of their story, sailing into skincare with ease, and said: "We are thrilled to see our sustainable seaweeds form part of our own Living Sea Therapy range, as it allows their healing power to be harnessed in an exciting and different way.”