It was purely by chance that last Sunday, I saw a Tweet by The Itchen Valley Brewery, that they had just finished setting up their stall for this year’s Alresford Watercress Festival. I had heard of the festival, but had never been. That day we had already planned to go to a lovely small farm shop in West Lea to get some fresh trout. From there Alresford was a stone’s throw away, so decided we would go to the festival too.
Approaching Alresford, about a mile away we suddenly hit a traffic jam. Oh dear, here we go! However, it was being managed quite efficiently by a couple of lads from Alresford Rugby Club, that is, if you were to believe what their high-visibility jackets were saying.
“Sorry Alresford is now closed to traffic; you will have to make your way to the Park & Ride facility at Ropley!” “How far is that, I ask?” “About 2 miles. Hook a left at the roundabout and follow the Park & Ride signs!” Four and a half miles later we get to the car park.. a.k.a. a field! A girl with an pretty, but official smile collected our £5 to park the car. This also included a festival program and a round trip coach or train journey back to Alresford. After negotiating around numerous cow-pats and some of the biggest thistles I have ever seen, we were directed by more high-vis jacketed teens to our parking spot.
We had just missed the bus going back to Arlesford by a couple of minutes, and were told we could wait another 20 minutes, or walk up the road to Ropley train station. Having a look in their programme for the timetable, I then realised that Ropley rail station is not a National Rail station, it is operated by The Watercress Line and that would mean old diesel rolling stock or even a steam train!! Excitement overload and without further hesitation we headed for Ropley railway station.
It was only a few minutes away, but you had to climb up a bit of a steep incline, but then it came into view in front of us.. a steam train! However, within a second or two of seeing it, a whistle was blown and with a great hiss of steam, it pulled out of the station… Doh!
A couple of minutes later we were at Ropley station. After regaining our breathe, we saw it was a very pretty station, and as it was purely used as a tourist attraction, had kept all its old fashioned railway station charm. We found a pile of timetables at the closed ticket desk, which advised that the next steam train departure was in forty minutes. However, a diesel train was due to go within the next twenty minutes. We decided to ride both. Diesel to Alresford and we would catch the steam train back.
A quick cup of coffee and a rather tasty Oat & Honey biscuit later, the diesel train arrived in from Alresford and we climbed aboard. We luckily managed to board a first class coach. The seats were very comfortable and within a few minutes the whistle was blown and we were on our way.
We rattled along a single line track, passing through rolling fields of rapeseed and unripened wheat. About 5 minutes later we arrived at Alresford Railway Station, disembarked our train and headed into the town centre.
It was impressive, a lot bigger that I ever expected. There must have been at least up to 40 or so local producers along with numerous other stalls, selling food, plants, wooden chopping boards and even Goats Milk soap. There was a central stage with live music, a cookery demonstration area with demonstrations by the likes of Rosemary Moon & even Rick Stein’s son Jack, who was showcasing his father’s latest restaurant, Rick Stein Winchester.
Stall holders included Joy Michaud of Sea Spring Seeds. Joy was selling a wonderful array of vegetable seed and chilli plants/seeds, including the infamous Dorset Naga! Along with her husband Michael, they have a wealth of knowledge. They even helped Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall to find his vegetable growing feet, when he first arrived at the original River Cottage. http://www.seaspringseeds.co.uk/
Paul Metcalf, The Mushroom Farmer from the Isle of Wight was selling a fantastic selection of exotic mushrooms, including varieties such as Pink Oyster, Lions Mane, White Elm & King Oyster. The mushrooms have a good textures and most importantly were flavoursome, not need anything like garlic, just simply salt and pepper, to bring out the best in the them. http://themushroomfarmer.co.uk/
The Tomato Stall supply some of the most fragrant and sweet tasting tomatoes in the South. In addition to the fruits themselves, they sell a variety of tomato based products including Tomato Cordial, Passatta, Ketchup, Tomato Chilli Jam, Tomato Infused Balsamic Vinegar and classics such as Green Tomato Chutney and my all time favourite Oak Roasted Tomatoes in either Basil, Sunflower or Garlic oil. All products are additive and preservative free. http://www.thetomatostall.co.uk/
Devese Farm Animals from Wickham, is run by two sisters-in-law, who both happen to be called Linda, and along with their husband/brother Robert, were selling goat. Devese Farm have a mixture of dairy and meat breeds. Their dairy goats are crossbred with the South African Boer goat, which provides them with a good carcass of meat. You could buy pretty much every cut, from shanks, shoulders, diced meat and chops to a variety of home-made sausages and liver pates. https://www.goatmeats.co.uk
Importantly as there should be at all good food festivals, there was a very good choice of street food, where the aromas waft straight up your nose and that make your stomach rumble. You could choose delights such as Chicken Satay or Paella to even a Cheese & Watercress Toasted Sandwich. This could be washed down with a couple of varieties of Watercress Beer. The watercress seeds are added during the fermentation process.
I was very impressed that such a small market town was able to offer such a large festival and as a result, time soon disappeared and we had to start making our way home. We walked back to the station in time for the last Steam Train back to Ropley, and we stood in the Guard’s Van all the way back, just because we could.