Leaves on the line

The steam train that once took watercress to market is now a tourist attraction
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The Independent Travel

We are standing on the lovingly restored platform of Alresford station in Hampshire, six miles from Winchester. A 1940s steam train, the carriages painted in fetching Southern Region green, puffs happily as it pulls away from the platform, past flower boxes and vintage posters advertising Imperial Airways and Batey's lemonade. Today, the service takes tourists on an hour-long trip to Alton and back. But for almost 100 years, from the 1860s, this was the Watercress Line which carried freshly picked watercress on a journey that ended at Covent Garden.

We are standing on the lovingly restored platform of Alresford station in Hampshire, six miles from Winchester. A 1940s steam train, the carriages painted in fetching Southern Region green, puffs happily as it pulls away from the platform, past flower boxes and vintage posters advertising Imperial Airways and Batey's lemonade. Today, the service takes tourists on an hour-long trip to Alton and back. But for almost 100 years, from the 1860s, this was the Watercress Line which carried freshly picked watercress on a journey that ended at Covent Garden.

"Watercress has everything going for it," said Jennifer Hiorns, a local caterer in the vanguard of attempts to make watercress one of England's more idiosyncratic tourist attractions. "I've been involved in all things 'watercressy' for some time. It looks good, tastes good and it does you good."

Visitors to this snug part of southern England can now embark on the Watercress Tour, a 40-mile loop through the countryside east and south of Winchester. The route, I should add for those with childhood memories of clumps of watercress limply draped over a dollop of salad cream, is essentially a device that brings together some attractive scenery, picturesque villages, vintage trains and thoroughly enjoyable restaurants.

As far as watercress is concerned, Alresford (pronounced Allsford) is mission control. The surrounding Meon and Itchen valleys, famed for their clear chalk streams, provide a landscape where watercress can thrive. And if Jennifer is to be believed, we are on the cusp of a renaissance for this humble aquatic plant. The rebranding of watercress includes a watercress festival held in Alresford on 15 May. This in turn heralds the start of watercress week, when visitors will be able to sample a range of watercress-based products: watercress chocolate, watercress ice-cream, watercress bhajis, watercress scones, watercress pesto, crêpes, beer and sausages.

Alresford has some fine Georgian architecture, particularly along Broad Street, which is, by all accounts, vigorously protected by the Alresford Society. You suspect that any plans to repaint a house in garish colours would be met with a written note slipped under the door at night. At the lower end of the village is the River Itchen, its path in either direction passing idyllic scenery, with willows nodding over clear streams and ducks and herons flitting back and forth. At one point, a 13th-century fulling house (fulling was a medieval technique for treating wool), now a private property, straddles the Itchen. Watercress stalls on the banks operate on an honesty payment system.

You can visit some of the watercress farms that lie in the surrounding countryside. To the uninformed eye, they can resemble sewage plants, with long concrete beds topped with a thin crust of mud. But as Charles Barter, the managing director of the Watercress Company, which runs several local farms, points out, the truth is somewhat different. "We only use water from bore holes or natural springs," he said. "And we stopped using pesticides three years ago."

The beds are a haven for bird life: little egrets, coots, moorhens and kingfishers are particularly fond of the habitat that watercress provides. Wood pigeons and lop-eared rabbits lazily nibble the plants at the fringes. Nevertheless, this is an industrial process that guzzles up to one million gallons of water per acre every day and yields 40 tons of watercress a week, enough to fill eight articulated lorries.

The watercress route meanders through relentlessly charming countryside, with signs for 12th-century churches and villages that doze happily as the 21st century passes by. The route is easy to cycle, while walking is rarely easier anywhere in the UK. The area is crossed by several long-distance paths, including the South Downs Way and the Monarch's Way, as well as dozens of local, well-marked trails. I walked from Warnford, with its attractive waterbeds (after a day or so in the area, this kind of language doesn't seem so strange), up to Old Winchester Hill. It's a delightful stroll of around five miles that loops up to an Iron Age hill fort with views south to the Isle of Wight before dropping down through farmland which is full of skylarks and stonechats.

Heading back to Winchester, I paused at the village of West Meon, where you can walk along the old Meon Valley Railway line that linked Fareham and Alton. In spring and summer, the trail is home to butterflies such as the marbled white and gatekeeper, plants including ox-eye daisy and primrose. I then visited the cemetery of St John's. Thomas Lord, the founder of Lord's cricket ground, is buried here in West Meon churchyard. The ashes of Guy Burgess, the double agent who fled to Russia in 1951, were interred in a family plot to the north of the tower in 1963.

Back in Alresford, Jennifer is preparing some of her watercress ice cream, which has the colour and texture of pistachio-flavoured ice cream. Jennifer aims to have it ready for the festival.

"It's got a bit of a pesto kick," she said. "Like watercress in general, it is going to take time to get the message across. But I'd rather that than a big bang where we're flavour of the month and then the interest disappears."

GIVE ME THE FACTS

Where to stay

Mark Rowe stayed at the Hotel du Vin in Winchester (01962 841414; www.hotelduvin.com), which offers double rooms from £115 per night, without breakfast.

Further information

For more details go to Winchester Tourist Information Centre (01962 840500 www.visit winchester.co.uk) and visit www.watercress.co.uk.

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