Drinking before lunchtime is not without risk; needing a loo whilst out on the trail, not finding the trail, or failing to turn up for lunch on time!
The Chilterns is a living, working area of beautiful countryside whose character has been shaped by agriculture, industry and the people who have lived and worked here over the centuries. Once the larder of London, the historic market towns, tucked-away villages, pubs, chalk-fed streams, valleys and ancient woodland, hint at the tradition of growing, trading, travel and of course, enjoyment of good local food and drink.
Chilterns Festival of Food & Drink
I had the pleasure of once again visiting the charming Chess Valley to meet food producers including a start-up brewery and the last watercress farmer in the valley, with our guides Andrew Clark and local Chess Valley Lamb farmer, Paul Jennings, both of whom had organised this unique event as part of the inaugural Chilterns Festival of Food & Drink.
It was another beautiful spring morning as we set off from Chenies Manor on our walk through this beautiful valley. This historic location has been impacted by human settlement for thousands of years; from the Iron Age, to the first century AD when the Romans began farming arable crops, to medieval settlements and abandoned churches, to the more obvious manor houses, miscellaneous ruined structures, monuments, tombs and the historic (altered) landscape are evidence of the many human endeavours.
Despite knowing you are out in the Chilterns countryside, I am reminded of how precious this landscape is – some would say lung – situated so close to burgeoning market towns and London. I heard mention many times of the environmental stress that the River Chess endures, from drought, increased demand for water and waterborne pollution.
Rising from three springs, the river is fed from precious groundwater beneath the Chiltern hills that hold a chalk aquifer that is the lifeblood of this region. From nearby Chesham, the river flows below parkland landscaped by Capability Brown at Latimer House, just to the north of the hamlet of Chenies, through water meadows at Frogmore and the watercress beds at Sarratt Bottom to the west of Sarratt, which was our destination.
On the way, we drank some beer!
’low hanging fruit’
‘win-win’and ‘black friday’ awaited.
All new ales brewed at the Sarratt-based Paradigm Brewery, founded in 2012 and already making a tasteful noise across the Chilterns. Co-owners Neil Hodges and Rob Atkinson certainly have a passion for what they do, a quest for producing the best beer, which is no easy feat when the bigger brewers have first dibs at the hops harvest. Undaunted, their beer is flying off the shelves, much in demand from local pubs and thirsty brewery visitors. I must confess to not being very knowledgable or appreciative of all things beer, but my father used to brew his own in the garage so understand the brewers zeal. I was keen to try to watercress beer that John Tyler suggested they use to create a new flavour that would be really distinctive, something that tasted of the Chess Valley.
Strip lynchets before lunch
Andrew and Paul pointed out various landmarks and places where former industry once was, including strip lynchets, on the rise up the valley side that are thought to date from the 9th century and may have been the site of medieval vineyards! Vines love chalky soils. There is plenty of wildlife, including the rare ‘ratty’ or water vole, once again making their homes on the riverbanks. The area is busy with film crews too including; Midsomer Murders, Taboo and Mary Berry’s Everyday cookery show.
The highlight of the day was a visit to E.Tyler & Sons Crestyl Watercress beds, the last cress farmer from a once busy industry that supplied the dining tables of London. The lama’s grazing at the entrance politely ignored us as we headed down the lane to meet with John Tyler, third generation farmer and formally keeper of the cress flame.
John is a man with many stories and he stood waiting for us with his tools of the trade; an innocuous-looking knife and plastic crate into which he placed the freshly cut cress. The diverted clear waters of the Chess make for perfect growing conditions as the plants take root in the shallow beds. The farm feels timeless, the tools, the terrain and technology. And the flavour, wow! Fiery, peppery and fresh. ‘Just picked’ cliche aside, it’s true.
Andrew dragged us away as our Taste of the Chess Valley feast awaited at Chenies Manor. On the menu was Crestyl Watercress soup, Chess Valley-grazed slow cooked lamb pea&mint pie, Blackwell farmed beef and Paradigm Ale pie served with a fiery cress salad, and if there was room, Chiltern hills honey and rhubarb.
What a fabulous day; being able to enjoy a beautiful spring walk in the Chilterns, meeting inspirational food producers, hearing their stories, sometimes tinged with dark humour as they have had to overcome obstacles on the way to bring us such wonderful food and unusual drink. Now it’s your turn to enjoy it.
Read about the last watercress producer John Tyler, who has sadly had to close this business to the varying quality of the water.
I recommend this 10-mile walk through the Chess Valley, details downloaded here.