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Hopping Down in Kent

First published : February 2013

March signals the start of the hopping calendar - with the stringing of the poles - so what better time for Vine to take a look at the process of hopping and examine the links the local area has with the industry? Anna Savory talks to local historian, artist and childhood hop picker Philip Clucas as he reminisces about his boyhood in fields at Greatness

Hopping Down in Kent

Kent is so strongly associated with the growing of hops that Oast Houses - the specially designed conical buildings in which hops are stored and prepared for sale - have become emblematic of the county. While only a few working hop fields survive today the last two centuries of Kentish agriculture has had the hop and hop picker at its heart, and nowhere is this more true than in Sevenoaks and its surrounding villages.


In the 19th and early 20th centuries thousands of acres of West Kent were devoted to growing hops in fields known as ‘hop gardens’ with up to 80,000 people involved in the annual harvest across Kent. By the beginning of the 20th century many hundreds Londoners were traveling from the East End every year to assist the locals with the hopping harvest in September. ‘Picking holidays’ as they were known offered the London poor a chance to experience the ‘clean air’ of the countryside and the money earned from a month in the Kentish hops fields would pay for a new pair of shoes and suit of winter clothes. Brought down on special hopping trains women and children from the East End would be allocated a hopping hut on arrival. Up to ten people would live in the makeshift shelters sleeping on straw or hammocks. Prior to 1939 London hop pickers were met with some hostility  and distrust from Kentish locals though after the Blitz they received a hero’s welcome each September. 


Hopping continued strong throughout the 40s and 50s though it began to wane in the 60s with the advent of mechanised picking and a trend among breweries to source their hops from mainland Europe. Vine magazine caught up with local historian and artist Philip Clucas who recalled his childhood when hopping was still going strong in the fields around Greatness;


“It was always a very matriarchal world in the hop fields. There were very few men - they worked of course - it was all mothers and grandmothers, powerful women from the East End. Sometimes men would come down at the weekends but during the working week, during the actual hopping, the women ruled the roost. There was always a great sense of community. By the time I was picking hops Londoners and locals were mixing and chatting and there was little divide, I think everybody was impressed by what the Londoners endured during the Blitz, and this broke down barriers. Both local children and London children would 'extend' their school Summer holiday into September to go picking and it wouldn’t be questioned too closely, sometimes the role of tallyman would be taken by the a school teacher simply because his class just wouldn’t be there. Most of the children were in the hop fields with their mums.


You woke very early each day. If you weren’t staying in the hopping huts you would leave home at half six for a long day starting at seven. It was cold of a morning at that time of year. September - that is when the weather is turning - so you would get these grey, damp mornings with mist hanging low over the fields but by about ten o’clock the sun would burn off the mist, and you would get a lovely sunny autumn's day - even today that kind of weather is known as a ‘hopping morning’.


Women worked throughout the day in the fields - just stripping the bine, taking off hand-fulls of hops as they worked along it - you could tell the hopping families that had been coming for generations because the women were tremendously quick! Sometimes middle class women would come down to pick hops for charity. They used to wear white lace gloves but the gloves didn’t last long... and neither did the women. The pollen from hops stains hands black, and the scent when you have been picking hops is lovely, really evocative, but you can’t eat anything with ‘hoppy-hands’ because it makes whatever you are holding taste incredibly bitter.


Children only had to work for half the day - at least that was the case at Greatness - and you would spend the afternoons playing. We used to fashion bows using rough hop-twine, and try to catch newts in the stream at the bottom of the field. If any strangers came into the hop field we would brush their feet with a sprig of hops for luck. We had a good little business going with it - people would often give you a ha’penny or a farthing for brushing their feet with the hops - if they didn’t give you a clip round the ear. But the cardinal sin as a child was to deliberately get in the bin or fall into it because that meant you crushed the picked hops - and because of the measuring process crushed hops would earn you a lot less. Women often tried to fluff the hops up when they saw the measurer was coming round so that the extra 'volume' would earn more.


It is a real shame hopping has now all but died out in Kent. There are still occasional fields - there is a hop field at Shoreham and two at Horton Kirby but they don’t grow anywhere near the amount of hops they used to in the 50s and 60s. Now they tend to be sold for decoration in restaurants or rustic kitchens rather than for flavouring beer. 


People still recall their days in the hop fields very fondly - I certainly do - and I know of London pickers who still journey down to this area in early September to visit places like the scrubland fence along the railway line near Otford station where once cultivated hops now grow wild - because the scent is so evocative they only have to crush a few hops between their fingers to be transported back 50 years to a nostalgic childhood in the fields of Kent.”