Watercress has always grown wild in the chalk streams and ditches in and around Alresford and was probably picked and eaten, by the local people, for centuries. Watercress is far too perishable to be transported by horse and cart along poor roads and so it was not until the coming of the railway to Alresford in 1865 that it became a commercial proposition to transport the crop to London and the Midlands. Cress could be picked in the afternoon, transported by cart to Alresford Station in the evening and be on sale in Covent Garden, London in the early hours of the following morning.
The industry expanded over the next 60 years with the number of growers and acreage under cultivation increasing. In 1925 an agreed code of practice and more modern cultivation methods began to squeeze out the smaller growers. The code of practice was aimed mainly at removing possible sources of contamination and it was at this time that the main production moved from simply being grown in rivers and streams to the cress beds seen today with impermeable sides to prevent entry of river water. Bore holes provide chalk-filtered water from 40 feet below the surface at the rate of 2500 litres per hour at a constant temparature of 10° C (51° F) all year round, keeping the watercress free from frost. On a cold winter's day steam can be seen floating over the beds resulting from the warmer spring water meeting the frosty air.
The water from the bore hole flows steadily from level to level through the beds regulated by sluices to maintain the correct depth of each bed. The cress can normally be purchased from an adjacent shed at any time as cress is a year round crop.
Hampshire is still the main producing area in the country and today the watercress is pre-packed on automated lines for supermarkets. Mechanical harvesters and rice planters now undertake what was previously a labour intensive task
The Watercress Festival
It was in 2004 that the Watercress Festival first arrived in Alresford, Hampshire.
One year earlier there had been a small Watercress themed Market in Ropley at the Station of the Mid Hants Railway.
By 2005 the Festival in Alresford grown to a size big enough to warrant the closure of Broad Street. The number of stalls doubled and the number of visitors vastly increased too. And from there it has taken off.
With the huge support from The Watercress Alliance the Festival grew quickly to become the go to food festival to promote and showcase everything Watercress.
Market stalls, food stalls, and a wide variety of family friendly entertainment soon became a staple of the event.
The Guinness World Record for eating two 85g of Watercress was set in 2010, with TV coverage stretching as far as China.
Since 2004, the Watercress Festival in Alresford has entertained over 180,000 visitors, and has firmly underlined Alresford in Hampshire as the home of Watercress.
Celebrity Chef Antony Worrell-Thompson distributes fresh Watercress from the Horse & Cart Cavalcade in 2008.
The crowds gather in another busy Festival in 2008
The festival has seen some rain, but only very occasionally!
Previous Event Manager Clive Burgess takes a break during the 2010 Festival.