The history of chalke valley watercress

Ten miles west of Salisbury, Broad Chalke is one of several villages that form the beautiful Chalke Valley.

In 1880 my Great Great Grandfather chose this site because of the fantastic spring water source that naturally rises here.

Rain falling on the hills higher up the valley filters down through the Chalke hills, picking up natural minerals on its way.

Watercress, known as the “poor man’s bread” in Victorian times, was now in reach of the larger towns, due to the extension of the railways.

Watercress was now in high demand and the market was expanding!



Watercress Beds Broadchalke 1909.
From left to right – Hubert Gurd, Albert Hitchings (2nd Generation,) John Hitchings (1st Generation,)

Fred Penny, Fred Moody, the leg of the man standing behind the cart belongs to Frank Jay.

Watercress production had started by 1889, development of water control and the forming of some basic soil banked beds had been made to the site. More improvements to bed construction continued through until 1979, at which point my father Geoffrey Hitchings completed his major improvement scheme, to pass the new NFU watercress code of practice. This code is still the backbone of the newly released Food standards Agency guide to hygienic watercress production,

The crops were all hand cut, back breaking work; long hours in sometimes very harsh weather conditions. The watercress was cut into hands which allowed the packaging staff to form bunches, these were packed into wicker boxes, then later into cardboard boxes, ready for the train journey to the wholesale markets, i.e. Covent Garden, Borough and Spitalfields.

My son Harry joined the business in 2013, now the sixth generation Hitchings to grow watercress in Broad Chalke. Together with a small but dedicated team, 

We still grow our own dark green variety in a traditional way, the watercress is now harvested by machine daily, packaged and sent out the same day to restaurants hotels, food service and farm shops, predominantly through the wholesale markets, also by local deliveries and direct postal.

Geoffrey hitchings
Geoffrey Hitchings (fourth generation)
Above: Chalke Valley Watercress’s older style label