For many of us, spuds or pasta are a daily suppertime fixture but for Tim Jesty, the table’s must-have ingredient is green and leafy with a peppery bite: watercress. His dad liked it doused with vinegar and caster sugar, but Tim’s favourite is on freshly baked bread with cheese and Marmite. For four generations, Tim’s family have been growing and eating the green stuff, continuing a British tradition that dates back two centuries.
“I guess I have green blood flowing through my veins,” laughs Tim as he takes me around Manor Farm in the watery heart of Alresford, Hampshire, known as the UK’s watercress capital. The plant has been cultivated commercially here since the 1860s, taking advantage of the mineral-rich natural springs that rise from the chalk aquifer below.
When we reach the farm’s six acres of beds – actually 120m (394ft)-long gravel-lined concrete basins – it’s pouring with rain, but Tim is unfazed. “Watercress loves the rain. That’s why it has such a long tradition in this country. The weather is perfect. We’re one of the few countries to grow watercress.”
Originally, watercress would have grown wild in Britain’s streams and rivers and been picked as free food or gathered for its many health-giving properties – it was claimed the leaves cured scurvy, cleansed the blood and even got rid of freckles.
Grown commercially from around 1800, watercress was bought from Covent Garden Market by street sellers – often children, who eked a living by forming it into posies – an early sort of takeaway. The sellers’ early morning cries of “wo-orter-creases” would become one of the hallmark sounds of Victorian Britain, with one commentator, Richard Rowe, remarking in 1881 that “there is something birdlike in the cress-sellers’ cry as one after another raises it.” Watercress was often eaten in sandwiches at breakfast or high tea, although in poorer homes it was eaten on its own as families couldn’t afford the luxury of bread, earning it the nickname of ‘poor man’s bread’.
Tim’s earliest memories are of helping out on the beds with labourers, who felt like an extended family. Many had worked for the family company, set up in 1896 by Tim’s great-grandfather, for decades. Watercress was tended and picked by hand, normally by men, then tied into neat bunches by women working in sheds alongside the beds. “It was back-breaking work, involving standing in water bent over for 15 hours at a time,” says Tim. As a child, he remembers helping to heave wicker baskets filled with watercress bunches on to lorries, which took their precious load to the local railway station on its way to the London markets.
When Tim left school at 16, there was no question as to what career he would pursue. “I left school on the Friday, and on the Monday I was picking watercress,” says Tim. “My family all worked in watercress, so I knew that’s what I would do.”
But it had been a close run thing, as in 1957 disaster had struck the industry: a disease called crook root. “Cress at that time was bronze coloured,” said Tim, “and the disease pretty much wiped it out.” In desperation growers retrieved the rogue bits of green watercress, known as bastards, which up until then they had thrown away, and miraculously they flourished. Green watercress was born. “We nearly lost the industry altogether,” says Tim. “It was a close shave.”
Another near death blow came in 1964, with the countrywide closure of thousands of miles of branch railway lines that watercress growers had depended on to take their crops to market. Among the casualties was Alresford’s Watercress Line, which transported watercress to London’s Covent Garden Market, although the line was later reopened to shuttle tourists. Growers had to adapt and send their freight by road instead, but many didn’t survive.
Until the 1970s, watercress was a hardy winter crop, enjoyed in heart-warming soups on frosty days. Since spring water maintains a constant temperature of around 10-11 ˚C, the watercress is unaffected by snow and frost, and on the coldest days you can see steam rising off the beds. Growing it in summer didn’t make sense as the plants insisted on flowering and running to seed. Farm workers had other tasks to do too, such as haymaking.
“You only ate watercress when there was an R in the month,” says Tim. “Some growers tried to clear the beds by the end of May so that they and their staff could get off to the FA Cup Final at Wembley. The match celebrated the end of the season.”
With the growth of supermarkets in the 1970s, however, consumers wanted watercress all year round. The plant was labelled a salad rather than a winter vegetable. This meant a change in growing techniques, too: to get watercress in the summer months, seeds had to be sown and planted out as seedlings from February until mid-July. “The skill is to harvest the watercress before it bolts,” says Tim. “Get it wrong and you’ve lost your crop. It can sometimes be a matter of hours. There have been times when we’ve had to go out in the middle of the night to catch it in time.”
The change in growing techniques coincided with increased mechanisation, so picking is now done by machine, except by a handful small growers (see Pick of the bunch). “When I was a kid it took 10 of us around 15 hours to harvest three tonnes of watercress,” says Tim. “Now it takes six people an hour.”
At the same time, watercress production has been concentrated into fewer and fewer hands. Tim’s family company is now owned by The Watercress Company who, along with Vitacress, have 95 percent of the market, with around 36 hectares between them. Their customers are now the big five supermarkets; a change from the days when Tim’s father would ring 50 customers a day to get orders.
Watercress’s recent elevation to superfood status and reports claiming its cancer-fighting properties have definitely helped sales. For Tim though, the future is not quite as secure. “I have two daughters and both have chosen to follow a different route, so it’s not looking good. I have a 14-month-old grandson, so who knows? But if he wants a five-day-a-week job, he won’t go into watercress. It’s definitely a seven-days-a-week job. I even check the beds on Christmas Day.”
The pick of Britain’s watercress growers
Hill Deverill, Warminster, Wiltshire
John Hurd was one of the first to convert his eight acres to organic production. The watercress is sold through Waitrose and in local farm shops.
Mill Farm, Hambrook, Chichester
Small family company that has been growing watercress in Sussex since around 1870.
Keith HitchingsChalke Valley Watercress
Broadchalke, Salisbury, Wiltshire
The site benefits from natural spring water that rises naturally in the pretty Chalke valley.
Simon LawesSun Salads
Craneview Holwell, Cranborne, Dorset
With farms in Hampshire and Wiltshire, now the third largest producer of watercress in the UK.