Inspired by last weekend’s visit to Ewelme Watercress Beds, today we decided to pay a visit to a fully operational watercress bed. E Tyler & Sons have been farming watercress at Sarratt in Hertfordshire since 1886. Today theirs is the only remaining watercress farm on the river Chess.
More on that later. Our walk started in the pretty village of Chenies with its Tudor manor house. The route took us through a wheat field and water meadows before climbing a steep hill to reach the village of Sarratt. With vague memories of reading Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, I was half expecting to see a secret training camp for spies (or at least a gateway with a ‘Top Secret – Keep Out’ sign.) Sadly not.
What I did see was the Church of the Holy Cross; a lovely church dating from the late twelfth century, with a rare saddleback tower roof set at right angles to those of the chancel and nave. Looking at it, I thought that it had probably escaped the ministrations of the architect Sir George Gilbert Scott who had a hand in the restoration of so many of our local parish churches. How wrong can you be? According to the church guide booklet, he not only directed a major programme of restoration here in 1864-6, but actually worshipped at the church.
After pausing for a cheese ploughman’s at the Cock Inn, our walk took us downhill again, re-joining part of the Chess Valley walk. After a while we reached the watercress beds; an incredibly pretty spot. An even prettier sight for my eyes was the ‘shack’ offering fresh watercress and refreshments for sale via an honesty box. Although it was not that long since lunch, it would have been a pity not to take the opportunity to sit on the thoughtfully-provided bench and enjoy a tub of local Beechdean ice-cream, before packing a bag of watercress into my camera bag and setting off home to look up suitable recipes.
It looks like a timeless scene, basking in the August sunshine. In reality the Ewelme Watercress Beds ran as a going business concern for only just over a century. George Smith, a publican from South Weston, a small hamlet just north of Watlington, bought the land in c.1886 and organised the digging out of the beds so that watercress could be grown. From there it was packed and went by wagon or cart to Watlington station and on by train to the Midlands and Manchester. Regulatory pressures meant that the site stopped selling watercress in 1988. Four years later, the Chiltern Society bought it and a team of their volunteers now runs the site as a nature reserve.
“You’re not seeing it at its absolute best today,” said Tom Stevenson, one of the volunteers, as he showed us around. August is a couple of months too late to enjoy the 130 orchids, of five different species, which flourished this year. Though Tom was reluctant to use the word “weed”, the team is keen to give wild flowers every chance to appear and has been using yellow-rattle in an effort to control the wild grasses which might prosper instead. In similar vein, meadowsweet has become rather invasive and the team is looking at options to prevent it taking up too much space.
Animals and insects get a chance, too. Pupils from a local school have built a “bug hotel”, while the team at Tiggywinkles persuaded Tom to see if the site could be a good home for some of its hedgehogs. “Sixteen of them,” Tom says wryly. “I had to get them here in my car. Have you any idea how smelly hedgehogs are?”
Smells notwithstanding, we wish the Ewelme team the best of luck as they work towards a diverse local habitat – hedgehogs, bugs, flowers and all.
Also, what flavour of food do they dislike? These were a couple of the questions to which we heard the answers on a trip to Tiggywinkles, the world’s leading wildlife hospital.
Tiggywinkles – named after the Beatrix Potter character – became famous for its treatment of injured hedgehogs, and there were over 300 in for treatment on the day we visited. But clearly the organisation has expanded in recent years. There is now a badger sett, for example. Just as each person in a hospital for humans has their own problems, the same applies to badgers. Rachel has fractures in both front legs, so she cannot dig and therefore can’t return to the wild), while Stevie is blind and Logan was found starving after the human family which used to feed him moved away. Christmas, meanwhile, is thus named for being found on 24 December, not for being white (but not albino)! There is also a new Red Kite education centre and aviary, along with a hide for observing muntjac, Chinese water deer, roe deer and fallow deer in a paddock.
Having said that, Tiggywinkles is still closely associated with hedgehogs. Its museum covers almost everything you can think of, including military formations, Royal Navy memorabilia… but not the “hedgehog sandwich” sketch from Not the Nine O’clock News. The hedgehog talk revealed that hedgehogs typically have 5,000 spines and like cat food or dog food, as long as it isn’t tuna or other flavours of fish. One resident of Tiggywinkles apparently enjoyed eating crisps, while another was known as Blue because – he fell into an open tin of blue paint. As well as the talks, you can view, through a window, baby hedgehogs and other animals and birds as staff feed them. You’d have to have a heart of stone not to say “aaaah”…
The beech woods may have been carpeted with bluebells, but we were in search of more elusive blooms.
As our group assembled in Hughenden Church car park, local nature expert Tony Marshall explained that we would be seeing Coralroot (cardamine bulbifera), a plant which in the UK is found only in the Chilterns and parts of the Weald. But that would come later.
We started with a close inspection of the area around the church walls – always an interesting place for plants. In the churchyard we came across Cuckoo Flower (cardamine pratensis), a relative of the Coralroot, as well as various other flora, some native, others escaped from gardens (sometimes it can be hard to tell.) Once we had exhausted the potential of the churchyard, we set off towards Flagmore Wood (pictured), resisting the temptation to stop off at Church House for a cream tea on the way.
The walk was organised by local group Prestwood Nature, a conservation group established in 2002, covering the area around Prestwood, including Great Missenden, the Hampdens, the Kingshills, North Dean and Speen. The group undertakes a number of local projects, including a wildflower meadow in Great Missenden and a community orchard in Prestwood, preserving traditional varieties of fruit tree.
It is fascinating how many different plants you can find when you really look and have the guidance of an expert who knows the subtle differences between species. In two hours we spotted no less than forty-four different species, not including bluebells, which were not at all hard to find. Coralroot sadly proved more elusive as we were a week too late to see them at their best, but we found a few in the end.