Memories of hop picking in Kent, shared at Scotney Castle
As the long summer days lead towards the harvest of the hops at Little Scotney Farm, we're looking back at how life used to be during those busy weeks. Many a happy childhood was spent in the hop picking fields of Kent. Take step back in time to read about Anne's memories of hop picking as a young girl with her family at a farm in Selling, near Faversham.
The long journey to Kent
I remember walking across the concourse of Victoria Station, London, in September 1955 pushing my brother’s pram which was loaded with our clothing and other possessions. I was aged 5, could only just see over the hood and with my mother and brother was on my way to go hop picking in Kent.
My maternal grandmother, Queenie, had been going hop picking with her family all her life and although not in the best of health she still wanted to leave her home near Gillingham, Kent and spend the month of September in the hop fields of Selling, near Faversham.
My mother, Joyce, was in charge of my brother, Michael’s pushchair and he was aged 9 months. We had set off from home in Essex and travelled to Victoria by train and the second part of the journey into Kent involved travelling by steam train. Queenie met us at Selling station and we then walked to our hopping hut which was to be home for the next week. We continued going hop picking until I was about 10 years old and so I used to miss the first week of each new school year.
Joyce would go down to Selling by car a few days before picking began and having collected Queenie on the way, she would prepare the hopping hut for occupation. The huts were built from grey breeze blocks with a corrugated roof, so Joyce tacked clean, old sheets to the walls where they met the ceiling and rugs were spread on the concrete floor. There was one small window.
Setting up home in a hopping hut
The bed was a crude wooden frame with a slatted base and it was in the back-left corner of the hut. Clothes were hung from nails fixed into the wall opposite the foot of the bed and there was a relatively wide plank of wood along the length of the bed which served as somewhere to sit inside.
All her life Queenie had slept on a feather mattress rather like the mattress toppers of today and this was placed on top of a horsehair mattress. She did not deviate from this combination when staying in the hopping hut. The four of us slept in it together and to me as a child it felt like sleeping on a cloud. I vividly remember lying in bed, my mother and grandmother sitting on the wooden edge of the bed with their backs to my brother and me, hearing them chatting in low voices while we were warm and comfortable in our feather nest.
There was no electricity. Water was fetched from a communal tap outside. There were no flushing toilets, showers or even wash basins. We didn’t particularly notice or care – that was how it had always been. I must say I hated the toilet arrangements: a wooden hut with a wooden seat and a hole in the ground – yuk!
There was no cooker either, so the evening meal was prepared and cooked outside the hut on communal fires, by the women of the families. The farmer delivered bundles of wood each day and the outsides of the saucepans were black because they were placed directly into the fire. I don’t remember what we ate but like all meals cooked outside they tasted good. There were no fridges of course but mobile shops regularly called at the site.
As for lighting my grandmother had paraffin lamps in the hut and she had a small paraffin stove inside for heating water for washing and drinks.
Gathering in the harvest
Each morning we would walk as a group to the hop field to be picked that day. Once allocated a row we would pull down a bine or two and start picking. I had to pick a basket a day (without many leaves, mind) and from time to time a tractor and trailer would appear and the tally man would weigh our pickings and mark my grandmother’s card accordingly. This was how her earnings were calculated. A man on stilts (known as the pole puller) would go along the rows, unhooking any small pieces of bine caught up on the highest of the wires.
" In many ways that week was a child’s paradise. No school, no washing for a week and once I had daily picked a basket of hops, I was allowed to go and play with the other children."
Of course, the weather varied. September can deliver an Indian summer but equally can bring a marked turning point between summer and autumn. If it rained conditions were decidedly muddy but it was rare for picking days to be cancelled due to the weather. Misty mornings meant that spiders’ webs were hung with dewdrops that looked like diamonds and the hedgerows were hung with grandfather’s beard. Other wildflowers I remember were corn-cockle, campion, birds’ eye and vetch.
There were often spectacular sunsets. I vividly remember one such evening on a Sunday when a local vicar had come out to conduct Evensong. People stood for the service in the open air and the combination of their singing and the colourful sky was magical.
We took sandwiches to the hop field for lunch – often they were bread and dripping something we don’t have so much today. We had tea from a flask and a good seal was assured by placing a piece of greaseproof paper between the flask rim and stopper.
When our week came to an end we packed up and headed home, leaving Queenie there for the rest of the month. My mother would then drive back to Selling to pack up Queenie’s belongings from the hut and take everything back to her bungalow near Gillingham. I do recall Queenie was most disappointed the year Joyce decreed she could not go hop picking anymore (for health reasons) and so came the end of an era in our family.
Years later I took Joyce to a Pick Your Own fruit farm close to my home in Sussex. “Do you know how you should pick blackcurrants?” the owner asked Joyce. “Oh, yes” she replied, “I grew up on a fruit farm in Kent”. “Where was that?” he asked. “Lower Halstow” she said, to which he replied “My family owned a hop farm near there, at Selling”. Yes, of course, this was the very same hop farm where my family had been going for many, many years.