Picking in the Hop Fields

Our friends, the Lees (really) live in Beer, Devon, England. Frances sent along her memories of working in the hop fields when she was a kid in Kent.

"I used to go to beerfests in Belgium years ago for some reason. This was in the 1960s when our generation were the first to take package holidays abroad. We used to go for a few days with Young Conservatives. I didn't take a lot of interest in the beer but I loved the dirndl dresses. Would you believe it was the first time I ever ate mayonnaise? Seems unbelievable now but none of us had. In England we ate salad cream which we still do but we also eat mayonnaise. We had it on chips that came in paper cones and we also got paper cones of mini hot doughnuts, the baking powder type with sifted icing sugar on top. They were both delicious especially when you ate them outside walking around in the cold.

"I was interested in the hop picking because Kent was a big hop picking area when I was a child. Everyone used to go. When my mother was a child instead of the summer school holidays being in August she says they would be in September so that everyone could go hop picking. My stepfather always took a fortnight off work in September for the hop picking because you could earn such good money then. It often started before we went back to school depending on the weather and then the whole family would go.

"We would pick into a big open sack like the one in the drawing the child made. Whole families would go from the baby in its pram to old grandparents doing their bit. Children who were too small to reach over the sides of the bin would pick into open umbrellas.

"The fields where the hops grew were called Hop Gardens. The hops grow in bines rather like a vine only instead of grapes it has hops. The hop flowers are green with lots of yellow pollen which is what gives beer its bitter flavour. The bines have a rough green stem that easily cuts your hands and the pollen in the hops has a particularly pungent aroma which is fine from a handful but becomes very noxious and penetrating when you are working with it. Added to which it stains clothes badly and any clothes used for hop picking are useless for anything else afterwards!

"I have mixed feelings about hop picking. It was great on a hot day with everyone picking cheerfully round the bins but not nearly so appealing when the rain came pouring down and the earth underneath (clay in Kent) became a yellow soup. Parents became irritable, children cried and shoulders slumped. We always wore wellies wet or fine, the children played hide and seek between the rows and made things out of clay. For some reason I always associate the smell of hops with sandwich spread sandwiches. Do you have that? Its little bits of crunchy vegetables mixed in salad cream. Mother always made those for hop picking as well as cheddar cheese and hard boiled eggs. Alternatively when I smell sandwich spread I'm back in the hop fields as well.

"The children used to play in the barns when it rained and in the oast houses. The men who worked there were amazingly tolerant. Children wouldn't be allowed to nowadays for fear of accidents. Leading off the big barns were the oast houses. These were round buildings on two layers. The hops that we picked were placed there on a huge piece of sacking covering a gridded floor. On the ground floor was a furnace which was kept fired up all night to dry out the hops. Someone would have to sit with the hops whilst they dried to make sure that the furnace  temperature did not drop. My stepfather did this sometimes as well as driving the tractors to and from the fields with the hops. One night he fell asleep. When he woke up the needle on the dial was dropping! In a panic he piled on more and more fuel but couldn't understand why the needle was rising so slowly. Suddenly he realised that actually it was going round the dial for the second time! Hope the hops weren't burnt.

"Usually one oast would be cooking whilst another one was cooling. This meant that there was always something for the men to do. When the hops had dried they would drag out the sacking with the hops on it into the top of the barn. (the oasts opened out of it on the same level so it was easy.) In the middle of the barn floor was a big round hole. Into it was fixed one of those big screws that you saw in the museum. A huge hop sack was inserted into the hole. It wasn't very wide only about two feet across but it was very long, probably about eight feet. That part would hang down into the bottom of the barn. Men would shovel dried hops into the top of the sack which was fixed to the opening with clamps. When it was full a man would pull out a huge thick needle and very quickly and deftly would sew up the top of the sack, open the clamps and let the sack fall into the bottom half of the barn. That was the only part of the barn where children weren't allowed in case one of the very heavy sacks fell on them. Two men below would stand up the sacks at the side of the room. Sacks are called pockets for some reason.

"Money earned from hop picking was very important. It meant new clothes for the children and Christmas presents, oranges and a fresh chicken. Chickens were expensive then. We only had one at Christmas. We didn't have turkeys in the 1950s. They came to England later.

"Later hop picking machines came in. No one picked in the fields any more but stood at a conveyor belt in a barn in the dry. At first people felt it was better because you could work whatever the weather but then they realised the disadvantages. It was noisy was the main one! You had to shout to make yourself heard. Children weren't allowed in. You had to stand all day to pick out the leaves and twigs. No longer a sitting down job meant that it was too much for some grannies and grandads and those with bad legs or feet. Children still played in the other barn and roundels or round the farm but gone were the merry family gatherings round the bin sharing sweets and swapping sandwiches. Workers would stop for breaks and chat but something had changed. We didn't realise it at the time but our generation was the end of an era!

"Oh dear I have rambled on,

By the way if you want to seeing a good hopping site there is www.thehopfarm.co.uk. This is a hop picking museum at Paddock Wood in Kent. This old farm with EIGHT oasts has now been turned into a hop picking museum. It shows you what hop picking was like and it also has memorabilia to do with making beer and a collection of old cars and vehicle. It also has some of the big old shire horses that they used to use to pulls the drays. (Oh of course you won't know that eight oasts is remarkable. Most farms would have more like one or two oast houses.)

More about Beer and the Beer Head beach can be found here, here and here.

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