Hop season at Scotney Castle

As the home to the National Trust's only working hop farm, September is the perfect time to visit Scotney Castle. See the hop harvest coming in at Little Scotney Farm in the traditional way and learn a bit about the hop picking heritage of the garden of England.

Kent has always been known as the garden of England, partly for its orchards but also for its hop farms. Whilst not many remain now, we're proud to have the only working hop farm within the National Trust here at Scotney Castle, currently looked after by our tenant farmer.

Oasts at Little Scotney farm
The Oasts used for drying hops
Oasts at Little Scotney farm

What are hops?

Hops are flowers which are added to beer during brewing. They give the beer its bitter taste and smell, and are also used for the preservation of beer. 

They grow on tall stems known as bines and can grow to over 5 metres tall. The flowers appear in July and then mature until around September. Hop plants themselves can last for up to 20 years and grow fresh stems each spring. 

Hops started to be used widely in British brewing in about 1520 when techniques were brought in to Kent. It was decided to call the areas where hops are grown gardens, to avoid a tax imposed on farming land. 

The hop gardens at Scotney Castle
Hop gardens at Little Scotney farm
The hop gardens at Scotney Castle

 

Processing hops 

Today, the bines are cut at the top and taken back to the stripping shed, situated next to the oasts, where the hops are separated from the leaves, stem and string by machinery. They are stored in re-used hessian sacks known as 'pokes' that are emptied in to the conical drying tower within the oast. It takes 8 hours to reduce the moisture content from 80% to 10%.

Once dry they are compressed into a new large sack called a 'pocket'. Each filled pocket weighs approximately 85 kilograms and makes it way to Westerham Brewery to be used in ale and bitter. 

Hops ready to be dried at Little Scotney farm
Hops ready to be dried
Hops ready to be dried at Little Scotney farm

Visit the hop gardens at Scotney Castle

Although our hop tours are cancelled for 2020, there's still an opportunity for you to see the hop gardens at Little Scotney Farm. Download our estate map and follow the yellow hop trail route. You'll be able to walk by the hop gardens and see the farm. Please note there is no access to the farm at any time, so please stick to the path. Work continues during September so keep an eye out for farm traffic and machinery on your walk.

 

The history of hop picking in Kent

Until the automation of the hop picking process in the 1950s, the harvest was done by hand. It involved cutting the bines down and stripping the flowers off into large bins (sacks held up by a framework of poles at each end) ready to go to the brewery. Farmers needed extra workers at harvest time, more than the local population could provide, so most of these seasonal workers came from London on special trains laid on to take them to the Kent villages. For many it was seen as a holiday, getting out of London and enjoying the fresh air and open spaces of the Kent countryside.

The children weren't excluded from joining in the work though, every bin was worth money so many had to play their part in earning the family's wage. The Tally man would come along when your bin was full to record how many baskets you had gathered ready for pay day at the end of the week.

Hop pickers around the bines gathering the hops
Hop pickers on the farm at Little Scotney Farm at Scotney Castle
Hop pickers around the bines gathering the hops

Accommodation was provided in hopping huts. These were oftern basic, terrace style buildings with a pallet bed and shelving inside. Everything had to be bought with the hop pickers so families would arrive with bedding, cooking equipment and whatever else they could carry and cooking took place on fires outside. There was a good community atmosphere with many families returning year-on-year to the same huts on the same farms.

See the old hop pickers hut at Scotney Castle
The delapidated hop picking huts in the woods at Scotney Castle
See the old hop pickers hut at Scotney Castle