As one of the last producers of watercress in the Chilterns, the weight of history is upon Jon Tyler’s broad shoulders.
Located in the beautiful Chess Valley that links Chesham in the Chilterns with Rickmansworth just inside the M25, E. Tyler & Son’s Crestyl Watercress farm is something of a novelty; in a high tech world, the clocks have paused at Sarratt Bottom, before rushing on up the valley.
Once enjoyed in sandwiches, at breakfast and high-tea, munched on in the streets, this harbinger of spring was sold in huge quantities to Victorian city-dwellers. Tired of their winter fare of meat and root vegetables, were only to glad to eat daily bunches of ‘blood-cleaning’ cress that had been brought in overnight by train and sold in the famous Covent Garden fruit and vegetable market. Jon recalls as a child, being placed in a whicker basket to play alongside the cress, before his family would take the crop on the train from nearby Chorleywood into London to sell in the market. Their stand, run by Elizabeth, Jon’s grandmother, is what Jon reckons kept the business going when farms begun closing in the valley.
A prominent figure in the London watercress industry was one Eliza James, who came to dominate the industry with a near trade monopoly and was nicknamed the ‘Watercress Queen.’ Jon is keen however, for his grandmother Elizabeth – who put the ‘E’ in E. Tyler & Son’s, to be put forward as another Watercress Queen: Elizabeth Tyler, Chilterns Watercress Queen! I like that very much.
Established in 1886, when there were 19 cress farmers in the valley, Jon’s great grandfather Alfred Tyler, rented the land from the Duke of Bedford (sometime owners of Covent Garden). Frank Tyler bought the land in the 1950’s, which then passed to Jon’s father Terry and for the past two years, Jon has farmed with the help of his sister Sarah and nephew Henry, who helps out at the weekends. Jon is very aware of the weight of culinary history and Chilterns heritage that sits upon his shoulders as the River Chess comes under increasing environmental pressure from an expanding local economy. In fact, as a direct consequence of a major sewerage discharge into the river, he has to expend precious resources on pumping water from another source that enables him to continue farming, but the plants are not so keen on the water temperature and nor is he keen on the bills!
Recorded by the ancient Greeks, watercress is one of the oldest cultivated plants with many websites and food columns filled with information on it’s health-giving properties. Easy to buy from the supermarket, but now I have tasted what watercress should taste like, there’s no comparison; chalk steam-fed crisp forest-green leaves with long firm stems, pack a fiery after burn that hits your throat after a good chew. Like eating English mustard – it blows all the cobwebs away!
Unlike the major commercial varieties that dominate the supermarket shelves, Jon’s crop is harvested and bunched by hand with a bone-handled knife, kept in the pocket of his jeans. In fact three generations of Tyler-owned Sheffield Steel are featured in the image at the top of this article.
This heritage crop is grown using the same low-tech methods; grown from seed in gravel beds fed by a constant supply of water (which also gets rid of pests), then raked over to root and produce more plants, this plant grows rapidly to produce an abundant year-round crop.
Self-service is a quite a novelty these days! £2 for watercress and Beechdean ice-cream from the shack that sees hungry and thirsty walkers empty their pockets. And that’s important, as Metroland visitors seek space, fresh air and local food to savour and take home with sticky fingers and ideas for how to eat their countryside spoils.
Jon and his family are integral to a healthy and vibrant visitor economy as the heritage crop they produce enhances and adds to the distinctive visitor offer that sets the Chilterns; somewhere worth spending time and money, somewhere quite different. Somewhere where local businesses thrive. You will find Jon’s farm at Sarratt Bottom, Moor Lane, WD3 6BZ, and accessible on the Chess Valley walk below.
The only other Chilterns watercress producer are the fifth generation Sansom family who grow cress in Whitwell, Hitchin.