At Goudhurst and Paddock Wood, and in many other villages throughout the south-eastern county of Kent, are the great gardens and oast-houses devoted to the growing and processing of the hop. Introduced to England from Flanders in the 1600s, this ancient plant, well known to the Romans, is cultivated for its very special catkins, which bring to beer its unique aromatic bitter taste.
A mature hop-garden in late summer is an exquisite sight, with bines trained over numberless rows of wires and lofty poles, called hop alleys, forming vistas of green foliage, gilded with garlands of golden hops. However, this glorious sight is not won easily by either farmer or picker.
Hops demand warmth and shelter to prosper, and much skilled cultivation in their long growing season – it takes three years for them to mature. At Goudhurst during the days of traditional cultivation, there was laborious and painstaking work to be carried out during every single season: in winter the old bines had to be cleared away and burned, the land ploughed, and the poles and wires on which the hops were suspended had to be fully refurbished. Throughout each growing season, the hop plants required continual spraying with nicotine or quassia to fight the swarms of insect pests that preyed on them. Varieties were selected by the grower for their hardiness, the size of the catkins, and resistance to disease and pests. Some of the most popular and widely-grown varieties were the Bramling, Fuggle’s and Golding’s, all named after the growers who bred them.
Towards the end of the summer of their third year, the ripening fruits began to swell and to acquire a scent. In the final stage of cultivation the ‘stilt-men’ appeared. On lofty stilts eighteen feet high, they picked a path between the rows, tying the topmost bines to the tallest strings to keep the ripening plants aloft. Once the plump cones were firm and crisp in the hand it was time for the pickers to enter the fray.
Many hundreds were employed by Kent growers. At hop harvest armies of the London poor travelled out by train and waggon to enjoy a few weeks of healthy open-air labour. It must have seemed like paradise, with the sun streaming down and with the fresh country smells and greenery. Men, women and children laboured from dawn to dusk in the dusty hop fields, sweltering in the sultry heat. The work was onerous and repetitive, but it not only provided them with a welcome income, it renewed their bodies and spirits, so they returned home to their cramped tenements and slum streets considerably restored. No matter that the rain sometimes fell pitiless and unrelenting, or that their clothes were scratched and torn and their boot soles worn paper-thin on the rough ground, they never failed to return the next year for more ‘opping.
This ragged army had to work fast, for the hops needed to be picked as soon as they were ripe. It was one man’s task to cut the supporting strings that held the hops aloft with a bill-hook, causing the plants to collapse and fall haphazardly down on the heads of the assembled hop-pickers below. Straight away, the bines were stripped of their harvest by a thousand nimble fingers. The pickers worked in small groups, each having a bin to fill with hops. The bin was in the form of a large sack spread out over a rough wooden frame, which could be moved gradually across the field as the work progressed. Bushellers employed by the grower made their rounds several times a day, collecting and measuring the hops. They offloaded them into pokes, which were loose sacks holding up to ten bushels.
Towards the day’s end the call went up over the fields, ‘Pull no more poles!’ and the brigades of pickers trooped off to kindle fires, prepare their evening meal, and to enjoy a well-earned rest. It was a time of joy and comradeship, despite the gruelling work under the hot sun. The humour was boisterous and a little too much beer could be drunk by some, but in general the atmosphere was good-hearted, and enjoyed by everyone.