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Hop Picking At Lamberhurst

September 13, 2015
by the gentle author

Flossie Reed & Vi Charlton

Contributing Photographer Colin O’Brien & I joined two coachloads of East Enders on a trip to Kent last week for a spot of hopping at Little Scotney Farm, courtesy of Company Drinks. As you can imagine, it was not the first time in the hop gardens for many of the participants which cast a certain emotionalism upon the day – Flossie Reed first visited in 1927 and Vi Charlton in 1930, as babes in their mothers’ arms.

Hop harvest in Kent takes a month and we were blessed with a warm September day for our visit in the midst of the picking season. The pickers set to work enthusiastically pulling the flowers from the bines and tossing them into a long bin set on the grass, just up the hill from the hop gardens and in the shadow of the oasthouses looming overhead.

The pungent bittersweet smell of the hop flowers proved a powerful catalyst for memories of hop picking years ago. Vi Charlton recalled her childhood joy at encountering  the fresh green of the rural world after the dirty sooty atmosphere of Wapping in the thirties. “I had an aunt who was a champion picker,” she admitted to me,“Nobody liked her because she showed everyone else up.”

“It was a matriarchal society,” Vi confirmed with a philosophical shrug,” but the men would come down at the weekend and drink away the money the women had earned in the week.”

“We were greedy pickers,” continued Flossie Reed widening her eyes with enthusiasm, “We had to borrow money from a money-lender to come down and we had nothing left at the end once we’d paid for our food, but it was a lovely holiday.”

“I first came here when I was ten and now I’m eighty-four,” declared Ronald Prendergast without pausing from his picking,“it was a way of life. There were eleven of us in my family and we came down every year from West Ham. We were very poor in those days and by coming here we earned a little money to buy things for Christmas.”

As we sat along either side of the bin at our work, tractors rattled up and down the lane all day delivering the bines from the gardens to the barn at the top of the hill. There they were hooked onto chains that carried them through a machine which stripped off the flowers. Then a conveyor belt whisked the hops up to where it was stored in sacks prior to being spread out to dry in the oasthouses. Thus a dozen people were able to achieve a harvest once undertaken by armies of pickers.

I climbed up into the loft where Graham Watkins was shovelling hops through a chute in the floor to the room below, where it was parcelled up into bales ready for sale. Graham showed me the conical oasthouses in which hops is dried for six hours at a stretch night and day, and as he opened the doors I was hit by a wave of humid air emanating from within.

Little Scotney is one of the last of a handful of farms in Kent still growing and processing hops in the traditional way, yet numbers stencilled on the wall testify to the growing output of the farm through the decades and the rapidly-increasing demand in this century, thanks to the revival in brewing led by microbreweries.

In the afternoon, Evin O’Riordan founder of Kernel Brewery in Bermondsey arrived to collect the hops we had picked that would find their way into a green hop ale before the end of the day. “It’s an opportunity to express something of a place and a moment in time,” he confided to me with succinct eloquence.

Ronald Prendergast - “I’d sooner pick hops than sit in front of a computer”

Delivering the bines from the garden

Hooking up the bines

The bines move along a conveyor

The bines heading into the machine that strips the flowers

Sorting the hops

Hops drying in the oasthouse

Inside the oasthouse roof

Recording the number of pockets (bales) of hops produced each year

Graham Watkins

Baling up the hops

Bales of hops ready for sale

Evin O’Riordan of Kernel Brewery in Bermondsey

Little Scotney Farm

The hopping party (click photograph to enlarge)

Photographs copyright © Colin O’Brien

Movements, Deals & Drinks is a project by international artist group Myvillages, founded in 2003 by Kathrin Böhm, Wapke Feenstra & Antje Schiffers. The project was commissioned by Create and is registered as a Community Interest Company with the name Company Drinks. Company Drinks is supported by the Borough of Barking & Dagenham.

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12 Responses leave one →
  1. Greg Tingey permalink
    September 13, 2015

    I’ll place a small nominal bet that it smelt wonderful ….

  2. September 13, 2015

    Thanks for the links, which allowed me to read up about the project and Erin’s beers. I hope the hoppers earned a few bob for their pickings.

  3. September 13, 2015

    Fabulous that some traditions still exist, my grandparents were from north London but they like the East Enders often travelled to Kent for the hopping season.

  4. John Campbell permalink
    September 13, 2015

    Listened to an article on London hop pickers recently which was very interesting. The interview begins at 1 hour 39 minutes of the programme. Hope you enjoy!

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p03049g2

  5. Hermann Hasler permalink
    September 13, 2015

    Here to complet the article music from The Albion Band about hopping.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U8cNUN7cg3Q

  6. September 13, 2015

    Gorgeous harvest time …!

    Love & Peace
    ACHIM

  7. Joan Halliday permalink
    September 13, 2015

    My father used to drive hop pickers to Kent from the East End in his lorry. They took pots and pans and blankets with them.. They were always very jolly.
    They seemed to have a lovely time.
    It is wonderful that some people are still going.

  8. Ros permalink
    September 13, 2015

    What a lovely post both to read and to look at. You and Colin have captured the spirit of the day beautifully and each photo and paragraph tells us how it was. Talk about sunshine and smiles! Marvellous to see people looking so happy and hops still being cultivated and put to use.

  9. Jill permalink
    September 13, 2015

    How lovely to see an oast house still with hops in it. I used to visit my grandparents near Sittingbourne and see the hop harvest. I can almost smell it still from 3000 miles and 50+ years away. Great article, GA!

  10. September 14, 2015

    Such a lovely day for remembering the days gone past. I recall seeing the oast houses on various trips in the UK and wished I’d had time to see this hop picking. Perhaps in another lifetime!

  11. September 23, 2015

    Thank you so much for the great photos. I enjoyed seeing what my mum and dad are up to on their adventures. Thanks also to Susanna (my college friend). I love how our worlds are entwined through this great organization.

  12. Shirley permalink
    July 27, 2016

    Thank you so much. Our farm in Wittersham grew hops until 1965. They were picked by local people but joined by many friends and family on holiday…. Laughter and conversations from bin to bin, the impossible task of persuading children to pick their share into an upturned umbrella, starving hungry and cold meat pie and runner bean salad and tea hot from a scalding Billy can at 12 o’clock and the terrible sting of the hop bine scratches when we were scrubbed clean each night….and lucky me sometimes allowed to sleep by the oast fires all night and help turn the hops above in the roundel ….

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