Hop Picking At Lamberhurst
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
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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