Growing in the village stream

MANY PEOPLE ENJOY eating watercress. I quite like it, but it is not my favourite.  I prefer eating its close and more piquant relatives: mustard and wasabi. As its name suggests, watercress is an aquatic plant that lives in a watery environment. It could almost be considered an edible water weed. This April (2021) we visited Ewelme, a small village in Oxfordshire, where watercress is cultivated in the river that runs through it. We had come to Ewelme to see its alms-houses and school, which were built in about 1437 and are still being used for their original purposes. I will relate more about these in the future.

On our way to the village, we met some cyclists, who told us about the watercress cultivation in Ewelme and recommended that we took a look at the set-up. I was interested to see it as I had never (knowingly) seen watercress growing. Also, I was curious because I have often walked past Willow Cottages on Willow Road in Hampstead. It was in this row of dwellings that Hampstead’s watercress pickers lived many years ago. They gathered the crop from streams flowing on nearby Hampstead Heath.

The name Ewelme is derived from the Old English ‘Ae-whylme’ meaning ‘waters whelming’ or ‘source of a stream or river’. In the early 13th century, the place was known as ‘Eawelma’. The spring after which the village is named is just north of Ewelme. Water from the spring that flows through the village is in Ewelme Brook, which is a short tributary of the nearby River Thames. It meets the Thames 1.2 miles upstream from Wallingford Bridge. Watercress grows best in alkaline water such as flows in Ewelme Brook, which rises in the chalky Chiltern Hills.

The watercress beds can be found in Ewelme near the northern end of the High Street, northwest of the attractive village pond that forms a part of the Brook. They were established in the 19th century. Watercress from Ewelme was taken to Wallingford from where it was carried further afield by train. In 1881, the idea of a rail link between Ewelme and Wallingford was mooted, but the line was never built. It was in that year that:

“…Smiths of Lewknor and South Weston, who were established at Brownings by 1881, and created cress beds along the roadside stream probably in stages. The business continued until 1988, with cress initially transported from Watlington station for sale in the Midlands, Covent Garden, and Oxford.” (www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/oxon/vol18/pp192-234)

The Ewelme watercress beds were abandoned in 1988 but restored by the Chiltern Society after 1999. This organization continues to look after them (https://chilternsociety.org.uk/event/chiltern-society-ewelme-watercress-beds-conservation-volunteers-6/2019-02-02/).

The watercress beds at Ewelme are a series of rectangular enclosures in a widened part of the stream. The cress grows, floating on the water in the enclosures. Pairs of enclosures are arranged sequentially like shallow steps in a staircase. The shallow water flows rapidly from one enclosure to the next through small gaps in the stone barriers that demarcate them. Swarms of watercress leaves on their stems almost fill each of the enclosures, deriving nutrients and water from the continuously changing water flowing through their roots. I imagine that picking the crop involves wading in the watery watercress beds.

Although Oxfordshire is no longer one of the major counties for watercress cultivation, what can be seen at Ewelme is pleasing to the eye. The counties where most of this plant is now grown include Hampshire, Dorset, Wiltshire, and Hertfordshire (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Watercress). Alresford in Hampshire, near Winchester, is known as the UK’s watercress capital.

Although I am not keen on raw watercress, I prefer it served in a soup. My late aunt used to make a superb watercress soup using fresh watercress added at the last minute to a homemade vegetable stock. We have tried making it with meat stock, but this was not nearly as nice because the fresh taste of the almost uncooked watercress gets masked by the flavour of the stock.  With this small bit of culinary advice, I will leave the watercress beds of Ewelme and wish you “bon appetit”.

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