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 and in the days before rubber boots workers wore thigh length leather boots carefully dubbined against the damp. Even so they were not damp-proof and every morning men would wrap hessian strips around their feet and legs to absorb moisture and prevent chaffing
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