This weekend the fires of Britain's last working coal-fired oast house will roar into life once more. Signalling the start of the 26th Hops 'n' Harvest Festival at Kent Life Rural Farm attraction in Maidstone and re-igniting a way of life that was once common across the county.

This weekend the fires of Britain’s last working coal-fired oast house will roar into life once more.  Signalling the start of the 26th Hops ‘n’ Harvest Festival at Kent Life Rural Farm attraction in Maidstone and re-igniting a way of life that was once common across the county. 

For centuries September marked the beginning of the hop picking season and, although the farm is now one of the very few places in Kent that still grow the bines, it once heralded the arrival of thousands of ‘strangers’ to the county.  Most of the pickers were from London’s East-End and entire families would pack up their belongings and, in the earlier centuries, travel by foot or pony and cart the thirty odd miles for a six-week working holiday. 

During the week it was predominantly a female and child workforce as the male members of the family would continue their work in town and travel down to join their families at the weekend.  Designated trains, known as ‘Hopper Specials’ ran from Greenwich and New Cross Station from 1837 and although this should have made the pickers lives easier they were frequently compiled of old rolling stock, or cattle trucks, and ran in the very early hours of the morning.   Tired and squashed the workers would then be delivered to their farm where they were greeted by their home for the next six weeks – a ‘hopper tent or hut’.

The lucky ones were allocated a hopper hut, an unfurnished twelve foot square corrugated tin or brick stall with straw on the floor.  Basic communal washing and cooking facilities were provided and picking ‘companies’ comprising up to ten people would live in one hut for the whole season.  It sounds grim, and to our ‘modernised eyes’  it looks it, yet if you look around the Kent Life farm you can see a series of huts furnished 'through the ages' and see the efforts the pickers made to enjoy, or at least, survive them.   Oral and written accounts collected during the 1950’s and 60’s, when the introduction of machinery sang the death toll for the working parties, tell another story however, one that is full of music and laughter and one account given in the hop farm guidebook reads as follows:

‘Me mam used to go down early to make the hut nice.  She even wallpapered corrugated iron! It was the only holiday we got see, and even though the grown-ups used to make us pick hops, by lunchtime we usually managed to sneak off into the woods…’ 

‘My sister was too small to reach the bins, so she used to pick hops into an upturned umbrella.  Everything tasted of hops and you could never keep clean but they were the best days we ever had.’

Once picked the hops were taken to the oast house where they would be dried on a specially constructed floor above the kiln.  The heat of the fire would gradually dry the paper thin green ‘cones’ and once cooled they would be packed and sent to the brewery.  Whilst drying they give off a strangely pungent aroma and once dry they have traditionally been used to add taste and bitterness to beer. 

This weekend (8 and 9 September) you will be able to help harvest the farms ‘Goldings’ and ‘Fuggles’ and see the drying process first hand. You can also taste the farm’s  ‘Cobtree Old Ale’ along with another 60 or so varieties of real ale and cider whilst enjoying live music provided by Van Susans, Funke and the Two Tone Baby.    

Booking Details

For further band, location and booking information relating to the Hops ‘n’ Harvest Festival please visit www.kentlife.org.uk or call 01622 763936.  A full weekend pass is priced at £15 for adults, £13 for concessions and £10 for children.  Individual days are also available and tickets for the Saturday only (10am to 9pm) cost £9.95 for adults, £8.75 for concessions and £6.50 for children; Sunday tickets (10am to 6pm) are £8.95 for adults, £7.75 for concessions and £6.50 for children. 

Acknowledgements

The book Folklore of Kent written by Fran and Geoff Doel greatly assisted in the writing of this blog and I would also like to thank Sarah Hirsch, the marketing manager of Kent life Rural Farm attraction for sharing her time and allowing me to wander freely.  Many thanks also go to Leah Taylor and Jeff Sims of EdwardHarvey PR for providing additional information and allowing me to reproduce the ‘men drinking beer’ and musician images.  All other images belong to the author.

This blog was written by Rachael Hale, a local freelance writer specialising in Kent’s historical people and places and you can see more of her work and find out how to contact her at www.rachaelhale.net