The Hop harvest
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.