Hot Stuff - Hampshire's Watercress Festival

The Hampshire Watercress Festival – yes, it really exists and it’s held each May in the pretty market town of Alresford.  It’s one of the most popular of England’s food festivals, combining a celebration of traditional fresh, local produce with a cheery eccentricity.  The Watercress Festival, which will take place this year on Sunday 19th May, marks the start of National Watercress Week (19th-26th May) – which aims to increase consumer awareness of this tasty little plant.

Victorian Sandwiches

Watercress has been grown in Hampshire since the late 19th-century, the pure chalk streams of the county providing ideal growing conditions for this native plant.  With peppery green leaves that are packed full of Vitamin C, watercress has long been a popular addition to salads.  In Victorian London the working classes would often eat it in a sandwich for breakfast – the poorest people, unable to afford bread, would just eat the cress. Trains used to transport fresh cress from the Hampshire beds to the London markets.  The Watercress Line, as it was known, was axed in the 1970s, but reopened as a heritage railway a few years later. 

Tour a Watercress Farm

A number of growers established commercial beds around Alresford in the 19th-century and at the festival you’ll get the chance to meet some of today’s commercial growers; you can even go on a tour of one of the nearby cress farms (you have to book in advance).  It’s a great family event with music, morris dancers, a hotly contested watercress-eating contest and cookery demonstrations.  Watercress is a surprisingly versatile food and you’ll have plenty of opportunities to taste it.  The main street of Alresford is lined with stalls and you’re likely to find everything from watercress scones to watercress falafel. 

Jane Austen Country

This is an affluent and attractive part of England - well worth visiting for a weekend and an easy journey from London (it takes an hour on the train from Waterloo to Winchester).  Jane Austen’s house is not far away, at Chawton near Alton, while Winchester is a charming city with a fine cathedral. A good base for exploring is the Norton Park Hotel, just outside Winchester. If you’re going to the Watercress Festival you can get a train from London Waterloo to Alton, where you can change onto the Watercress Line and take a vintage train to Alresford.  If you’re going by car, park at Ropley station and get a train from there.

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