An English market town celebrates the punchy plant with an extravagant annual watercress festival and pristine heritage railway.
It was a sunny July day and I felt as though I was standing in a 19th-Century film set. The whistle of the steam train sounded as I waited on the perfectly preserved Victorian platform at Alresford station in Hampshire. The pale yellow and green station palette, barley twist lamp posts and original signage was virtually the same scene as 100 years ago, and colourful blooms amplified the serene setting. The historical hissing sound marked the beginning of my journey back in time to when the county’s famed watercress began to spread nationwide.
Although watercress may not be frequently used in many countries, in Britain, where it has been cultivated commercially for hundreds of years, it is a commonplace and popular addition at mealtimes. Related to the mustard family, its Latin name, Nasturtium officinale, is aptly translated as “nose twister”, which anyone crunching on its punchy, peppery leaves can attest. Traditionally it’s used as the base of watercress soup or to perk up salads and sandwiches, while more modern uses include watercress pesto or hummus.
Watercress is undeniably nutritious. Rich in vitamin A (from beta-carotene) and vitamin C, a source of calcium, iron and vitamin E, it also contains useful amounts of vitamin K and vitamin B6. It was known for its health benefits by the ancient Greeks and Romans, and named as a Future 50 Foods in a 2019 report by the World Wildlife Federation and Knorr, which considered it a “superfood” and noted its versatility: “both the delicate green leaves and paler stems can be eaten sautéed or fresh, and are great mixed in soups, salads, tarts and omelettes”.
The handsome market town of Alresford has been the home of watercress for centuries, with the flat, chalky downlands offering the perfect conditions for the plants to flourish. It’s known as “the watercress capital of the UK,” said Andy Elworthy, senior farms manager at local producer Vitacress Salads. He explained that the area provides a constant supply of crystal-clear chalk spring water in which the cress grows, containing essential minerals such as calcium, which is required by the plant. “The water comes out the ground at a constant 10 to 11C,” he added, “which is necessary to protect the crop during winter and cool it in summer.”
Watercress was far too perishable to be transported by horse and cart along poor roads since its delicate leaves are best delivered quickly for freshness. It was the opening of Britain’s public railways in the 19th Century – particularly the Mid-Hants railway link in 1865, which connected Alresford to London – that ensured its nationwide success. The new rail links meant that watercress could be rapidly transported to the capital and beyond; and while the Mid-Hants railway transported freight from turnips to racehorses, it was soon dubbed the “Watercress Line” owing to the huge quantities sent to London’s Covent Garden Market each day.