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Down to the Cress Beds

by W. G. S. Crook, J.P.
(from Herts Countryside, 1947)

(The following artice comes from a 1947 edition of Herts Countryside)

"A CHARACTERISTIC feature of the Hertfordshire countryside, and a very pleasant one too, is the abundance of watercress beds. Watercress growing is a flourishing industry, and rightly so, for the green plant is a herb rich in calcium and iron, a trifle hot to the taste perhaps on first acquaintance, but an essential part of all green salads and sandwich dressings.

There is a plenitude of cress beds scattered along the Gade, the Bulborne and the Colne. This must, it seems, be attributed to the presence of natural springs in the water-bearing chalk. They are referred to as top springs, and are fed by the rainfall within their catchment area. The supply is uncertain, and cress growers speak of a lowering of the water table over recent years, so they seek a constant supply of fresh, unpolluted water by means of artesian wells or bores, sunk to a depth of some 120 feet on to the hard chalk or greensand formation. This ensures them a running supply at an even temperature of fifty two degrees Fahrenheit. It is pumped through the cress beds and feeds the growing plants, but the failure of the pumps would cause havoc in the severe wintry weather. A fall is required in the level of the beds so as to maintain a flow of water, varying according to the local circumstances relative to the quantity and quality of the water, but it would be in the region of six to nine inches per hundred yards. The depth of the water in which the cress grows is about two inches.

For ideal growing conditions it requires a cloudy day, somewhat hot, with a fall of rain - what we may term a muggy atmosphere. The north-west wind is much disliked. To know what to do, and exactly when to do it, comes with many years of experience. Even then what may be successful on one occasion may not be on the next. One needs to co-operate with mother nature, but the pressure of seasonal demand may tempt the grower to anticipate her, and, as we well know, she can be unpredictable at times, so he must take some liberty with the cutting and replanting of his crops, for he cannot afford to miss the market.

There are many varieties of cress, but all come under two main groups - green and brown. The green is an all-the-year-round variety; the brown is a winter variety and is so named because of its tendency to be darker in colour, having a purplish-coloured leaf.

Cress is on sale practically the year round, although the supply drops in January and February. Propagation is carried from seeds and from plants. The plants are obtained from tops in another bed, and are planted in the summer time when the bed has been cleaned and weeded ready for the work. It would take some six weeks for a bed to reach maturity, and according to the weather conditions and to the quality and quantity of the water it would be possible to crop a bed every three to six weeks.

Gathering is done in the winter months by pulling over, that is pulling half the crop from the bed and leaving the other half to spread and thicken up for the next crop. The maximum life of a bed is about two years. Work is very strenuous when the season is reaching its peak, say in spring, and again in the autumn.

The actual peak period has varied over the years for some uncertain cause. Thirty years ago the rush period centred upon Easter-time, now it appears to follow upon Whitsuntide. It is suggested that the severer part of the winter coming after Christmas rather than before accounts for this. Broadly however, we may say that the peak stretches from March to June.

The gathering or cutting and the bunching of the cress are matters for very experienced hands. It is gathered in the left hand, and each finger plays a part. An ordinary table knife is used for cutting, and the cress is taken to the shed, where it is bunched and washed, packed in three dozens in chip baskets (the strawberry type) and labelled ready for despatch to the market. The baskets are made specially for the cress trade, and are not returnable to the beds from the market. They are part of the cost of production.

Speed, of course, is essential in reaching the market so that the cress is fresh and readily saleable. It is transported by rail and by road to all parts of the country. Timing is a precise art, for cress is in the market at Covent Garden within a few hours of being cut in Hertfordshire. It is a strange commentary upon our methods that cress goes up to Covent Garden, with all the congestion of modern traffic, and comes back to the retailer for sale in the shops - from Hertfordshire back to Hertfordshire. Supplies go to Liverpool, Leeds, Birmingham and Manchester by the evening trains ready for the morning. Hotels and restaurants, together with the discerning housewife, look for the tonic qualities of Hertfordshire cress in the large cities of the North and the Midlands.

Cultivation requires about one person per acre for the whole operation of planting, bunching, washing and dispatching, together with the incidental work of maintaining the ditches. The men are supplied with thigh-length wading boots. During the winter months the cress is kept down in the water as far as possible by the use of heather brooms or wooden rollers as a protection against frost. At this time the crop makes its quickest growth close upon the outlet from the artesian wells, where the temperature of the water is most conducive to growth; at the far end of the ditch it may be very retarded because of the drop in temperature.

Superphosphate is used as a manure. The grower has to contend with crookroot, which is a fungus disease attacking the plants during the winter months. A good deal of research is carried out on this disease at Wellesbourne in Warwickshire. Birds can be a nuisance for they pull the plant up during the cold weather in search of shrimps and snails, damaging the crop considerably. The grower must have a fundamental knowledge of the water, born of long study and acquaintance with local conditions, together with a combination of scientific and intuitive understanding of the rotation of his year's work.

I cannot conclude without some reference to Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654), who spoke in praise of watercress. In 1653 appeared The English Physician Enlarged or The Herbal which had an enormous sale, and perhaps to him we owe much of the growing prosperity of Hertfordshire cress growing, which should long continue to be a feature of our countryside if we can conserve our natural water resources."

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