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.