Flavours of the Chess Valley

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.

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.

River chess looking calm
The tranquil river chess

Three Springs

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’
‘watercress ale’
‘win-win’and ‘black friday’ awaited.

Paradigm Brewery
Watercress Ale

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 cress beds on a winters day
Crestyl Watercress Beds

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.

Watercress farmer, the last of his kind
John Tyler, formally the keeper of the 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.

Chenies Manor

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.

Lunch at Chenies Manor
Two happy diners

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.

Further Information

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.

For further information on what else there is to enjoy locally in the Chilterns and elsewhere across the summer.

Chenies Manor

Located in the beautiful hamlet of Chenies in the Chess Valley, Chenies Manor House was one such building project: formally home to the Russell’s, Earls of Bedford, this 15th century semi-fortified brick manor house so typifies the Chilterns.

An ode to the humble Chilterns brick.

It is the landscape that ultimately determines what is built or cultivated nearby, which industries thrive or die, or how secure a settlement is. The positioning of windmills to capture the prevailing wind and watermills to harness the power of the water are obvious examples. Not so obvious is the location of the more humble brick kiln, essential to the successful outcome of any building project. The presence of sand, clay, spring water, nearby woodland, a major road or canal all determined whether or not brick kilns were built. Even a hill made the difference with a downhill delivery of the bricks to their destination.

Chenies Manor House

Located in the beautiful hamlet of Chenies in the Chess Valley, Chenies Manor House was one such building project: formally home to the Russell’s, Earls of Bedford, this 15th century semi-fortified brick manor house so typifies the Chilterns: quietly understated, yet certain of its place in English history and tucked away down a winding country road in a place you’ve probably never heard of. It is here visitors will find several unusual architectural features including; stepped gables, a sunken Tudor garden and an unusual recreation of a turf maze popular in the medieval and Tudor period. It may have been the window taxes that have resulted in an odd south-facing south wing, which you’d have expected to look out onto the glorious garden with enormous sun-seeking windows, instead it is almost windowless.

Widespread throughout the Chilterns, brick and flint are the local vernacular building materials of choice. Whilst at Chenies, the flint is absent, the colour of the small bricks varies from lightish red, to blue and purple, to blocks of enduring deeper red, interrupted by uneven lines of grey or white mortar. Quite unlike the extravagant and fussy shapes that form the 23 striking spiral twisted trademark Tudor chimney stacks.

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In 1676, Dr Robert Plot wrote in his Natural History of Oxfordshire: ‘About Nettlebed (in the Chilterns), they make a sort of brick so very strong that whereas at most places they are unloaded by hand, I have seen these shot out of carts after a manner of stone to mend highways and yet none of these broke’. 

Further Information:

The last brick kiln in the village
An incongruous setting for the last remaining Nettlebed brick kiln.

There is one remaining 18th century brick bottle-kiln at Nettlebed.

The charming Chess valley is a wonderful place to explore the river chess, visit a pub or sample local food and drink: tastes of the Chess Valley with the last remaining watercress producer.

To enjoy another cracking example of the landscape determining the form and function of an industry, I recommend ‘Meet the Vintner with Rocks in his Pockets’.

For further information on exploring the naturally outstanding Chilterns For further information on visiting Chenies Manor