In the Chalke Valley near Salisbury in Wiltshire are traditional watercress beds, farmed by a sixth generation family business. In a beautiful location and free to view, they are well worth a visit and can feature in many of the walks on offer in this unspoilt countryside.
Chalke Valley Watercress is in the beautiful village of Broadchalke, just ten miles away from Salisbury. Broadchalke is the largest village in the Chalke Valley which runs from Alvediston to Salisbury with the River Chalke, a freshwater chalk stream which is a tributary of the River Ebble, one of the five rivers which meet at Salisbury.
Watercress is the oldest known leaf vegetable eaten by humans and was once a staple of a working class diet, providing essential vitamins and nutrients. It was foraged from the wild, with its first commercial cultivation being in 1808 in Kent. With the advent of the railways, watercress farms cropped up in Wiltshire and Hampshire; the watercress could be picked and shipped to the markets of London within a day. By the Victorian times, watercress was known as 'the poor man's bread', with it being one of the first foods that could be eaten on the move and that provided adequate nutrition.
The crystal clear waters of the River Chalke run through the watercress beds
The Chalke Valley watercress beds are situated where a spring water source rises naturally. Rainwater falls on the nearby hills and filters down through the Chalke hills, collecting natural minerals on its way. The farm was started in 1880, the same time as the main watercress farms in Alresford, just 40 miles away and known as the 'Watercress Capital of the UK'.
The work of the farm has changed little over the years, now being farmed by the 6th generation of the Hitchings family. Initially everything was cut by hand which must have been back breaking work in often bad weather; picked into bunches, packed into wicker baskets and sent off by train to the markets of Coven Garden and Spitalfields. Nowadays there is a small machine which cuts the watercress, but it is still bunched up and packaged and sent same day to restaurants and wholesalers across the country.
You can walk around the outside of the watercress beds on the road and public footpath and see it growing in the clear water of the Chalke.
You can stop to buy some from their farm - just take a bunch from the fridge and put your money down the tube in payment; it is currently 75p a bag or 3 bags for £2.
It is delicious and I highly recommend it.
You can even order it online, and get it delivered to your door.
If you go for a meal at the local - The Queen's Head, you are likely to be given a watercress garnish with your dish, grown less than a mile away.
Food grown under a mile away by a 6th generation family business eaten in an independent pub - you don't get more Slow Travel than that!