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Hop Picking With Colin O’Brien

August 19, 2017
by the gentle author

A year ago I lost my friend, the late & great photographer Colin O’Brien, and I celebrate his memory with this account of our hop picking excursion to Lamberhurst with Company Drinks in 2015

Flossie Reed & Vi Charlton

Contributing Photographer Colin O’Brien & I joined two coachloads of East Enders on a trip to Kent 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 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 © Estate of 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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6 Responses leave one →
  1. Georgina Briody permalink
    August 19, 2017

    As a child living in Southwark back in the 1950s, I remember class mates disappearing off to the hop fields. It gladdens my heart to see the pictures and to hear about Evin running his micro-brewery in Bermondsey and buying his hops from Kent……thus following traditions. Long may it last.

  2. August 19, 2017

    This is the best blog so far on hop picking. These are my favorite people such comradery this one today goes down memory lane. Shown is the end of the bagging up cycle no machines in sight. These lovely hop blogs will go on for ever the material available is endless. !Dare I say it all the mat collected over the years would make a superb book – I would invest. Rtd hop pickers be happy, have fun, smile with love in your hearts – these can bring back life to you with some ….zing. Poet John

  3. Jim McDermott permalink
    August 19, 2017

    ,” but the men would come down at the weekend and drink away the money the women had earned in the week.”

    Ah, the good old days! Power without responsibility!

  4. Tanya Nash permalink
    August 20, 2017

    A beautiful tribute to Colin, GA. Some lovely photographs and memories.

  5. November 15, 2017

    As a newish reader, I have started methodically perusing your archives, what riches! I first heard of oast houses reading about Sissinghurst and was captivated by their unusual shape. I don’t think we have such structures here in the U.S. Reading Harold Nicolson’s diaries, I found out that the oast houses “throb and roar as they dry the hops” and that the tops rotate. They have movement and sound, almost living creatures! I haven’t been to England since the 90’s, but someday I want to see the hop fields and oast houses live. In the meantime, I can visit via your wonderful blog (along with Ben Pentreath’s, which has been my Anglophile life-line for some years now.) Thank you for sharing your experiences.



  6. Desiree Michael permalink
    August 17, 2022

    Such sweet old ladies! So funny. Lovely bunch of people!

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