Tools of the Trade

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.

As one of the last producers of watercress in the Chilterns, the weight of history is upon Jon Tyler’s broad shoulders.

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Lush and fiery, watercress is not for the feint-hearted!

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.

I have written about and described this valley in a number of blogs including; The Charming Chess Valley and Tastes of the Chess Valley.

Harbinger of Spring

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.

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Elizabeth Tyler centre with husband Alf and son Fred c.1920 at Sarratt

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.

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Using techniques unchanged for centuries, the roots are immersed in water

London Connections

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. 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!

Tendered by Hand

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.

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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.

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Ice creams and ‘cress for sale!

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. From April, open at weekends only, 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.

April 2021 update: sadly, Jon is no longer able to sell watercress from his farm due to ongoing issues with the quality of groundwater needed to grow the crop.

Further Information:

The beautiful Chess Valley has other producers and businesses for your to visit and support. Discover other flavours of the Chess here and a taste of it’s remarkable history here.

To find out more about the naturally outstanding Chilterns and to download a walk that will take you right past the farm.

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.