Hopping in Kent

Turkeys, heresy, hops and beer, came into England all in one year !
Time: 1500s      The Place: Kent 

One of the most lovely things about living in rural Kent, amongst apple and cherry orchards and hop gardens is that, at this time of year, we can participate in the age old tradition of gathering some hop garlands to hang around our home, and enjoy that heady smell which says just one thing:

 ” It’s September down in ‘The Garden of England'”!

The county of Kent has long been associated with hop production whilst oast-houses (distinctive brick or stone built barns with their round or square towers) which were designed to dry hops have become characteristic landmarks and symbolic of agricultural life of the county during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Oasts and cornfields, Kent

The Latin name for the hop is Humulus lupulus which means ‘wolf of the woods’ ! – Interestingly the plant first was noted for its medicinal properties as far back as ancient Egypt.  Its association with Kent, however, just goes back to the 16th century when Flemish settlers, at the time of Queen Elizabeth 1st, preferred a beer with a flavour more like they found back home, and noted that hops also improved the keeping qualities of the beer.  It is probable though that the first hop garden was created near Canterbury in 1520. Conditions were perfect for hop cultivation, suitable soil, and of course, a good supply of wood for the poles upon which climbed the hop bines.

I think it took some time for the locals to catch on, as they rather thought that the hop was a bit of an ‘ evil weed ‘ and  ‘ inflated the belly’ – They were indeed rather suspicious of this ‘Dutch’ or ‘Germanic’ influence on the home brew !

Hops in Shatterling

The 19th century was the golden age of hop production in the county. I can imagine how it might have been, hops running up wires attached to poles from ground level to the top wires where stringers and harvesters walked on stilts to tend and harvest the hops!

I am thrilled to learn that my near neighbour, Derek, was one of the last stilt walkers in our village, and he still has his stilts!  I am looking forward to talking to him and a tour around our local hop garden soon – pictures to follow!
It wasn’t just the local farming community who assisted in the hop harvest and folk would come from the East End of London with their families, stay in the Kentish hop gardens in the little ‘hoppers’ huts’.  By day they would cut the hops from the released bines and earn ‘tokens’ from the tally-man.  By night, they would relax around the camp fires, maybe telling stories, singing songs.  For Eastenders, it was a holiday in the countryside.  The hops would then be taken to an oast to be dried by a warm air system until just the right level of dryness, and then taken to be used in the brewing industry!

Essentially Hops, Bekesbourne. Parsonage Farm from a postcard printed by Oyster Press Whitstable.

I love it that some will tell you of the sunlit days, the fun and games in the countryside, the heady smell of the hops and the pennies to be earned. A romantic idyll ? Others will tell of the rough hob bines which scratched and stained your fingers, the race against the weather, and the very strict tally-man who was not easily pleased.  Locals may remember those London children turning up in their small, rural primary schools. Different ideas, different ways of life, and more than the odd playground fight between the children. The hops, at the end of the day, had to go immediately to be dried, which explains why there are so many oast houses in the area. – Many now have been turned into private houses but still make a distinctive mark on our landscape.

Hop Heart in my living room

Well, a way of life which has disappeared into the past, but which we remember. If we pass on a guided tour between Sandwich and Canterbury or near Faversham or even as we approach the main motorway to London, we see the hop gardens (always say garden, never fields)! – So many anecdotes, so many myths and legends to learn. Also, of course, like so many before me, I venture out to gather in my hops to bring good luck and plenty to my home for the next 12 months to come.

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