Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Signs of the times: Autumn #3

More comparisons between the British countryside of today and that from 1959-1961 in the paintings of Charles Tunnicliffe in the Ladybird "What to look for..." series of books.


Beneath the willow wound round with ivy
we take cover from the worst
of the storm, with a greatcoat round
our shoulders and my hands around your waist.

I've got it wrong. That isn't ivy
entwined in the bushes round
the wood, but hops. You intoxicate me!
Let's spread the greatcoat on the ground."

Boris Pasternak

(Copyright: Ladybird Books)

What a brilliant picture this is, so much of its time; the subject, families going “hopping” in Kent, to help with the annual hop harvest, the unusual tilted roofs of the oast houses (or hop drying barns) visible in the background. The text says: “September is the time for hop-picking, when large numbers of people come from the towns to help harvest them.” In 1960 maybe, but no longer. As a regular practice this died out during the 1970s and 1980s as hop harvesting became more mechanised (and presumably as people became generally more affluent on average and many took a different kind of summer holiday?). The lovely O, herself a Londoner, thinks the expression "hop it", or "hopping it", survives from the time that Londoners quit the city to work on the hop harvest in Kent and elsewhere.

As described by a great website, “The Oasts of Kent”, hops (Latin name: Humulus lupulus L.) are cultivated climbing plants “whose dried female flowers became a vital ingredient in the brewing of beer, which overtook traditional ale (brewed with just malt) in popularity following the introduction of hops in the 17th century. Hops add flavour and aroma to beer, making it clearer and less perishable. Thanks to hops, the modern British drink of 'bitter' was born.”

The website "Romany Road" also describes the history of hop growing in England: “Traditionally hops were first grown in Kent in the 1520s, but soon spread to other counties including Herefordshire, where the crop was extensively cultivated in at least 80% of the parishes for over 400 years. Hop-picking terminology varied across the country. A hop garden in Kent was known as a hop-yard in Hereford, a hop-bin in Kent was a crib in Hereford, whereas an oasthouse in other areas was called a hop-kiln in Hereford.”

To supply the new ‘bitter’ brewing industry, the growing of hops expanded commercially. Again, from “The Oasts of Kent” and as shown in the painting here, hops “were grown in 'gardens,' which consisted of a wire framework suspended above chestnut posts. From these wires, lengths of string were suspended and the shoots of the hop plants were trained up these strings from the hop crowns, planted in the ground. The gardens were strung and maintained by stilt-walkers (a highly specialised job) and the mature hops were harvested by hand in August. Most gardens were located in the southeast of England, although an area around Herefordshire, Worcestershire and, briefly, Shropshire and Gloucestershire was also important... The crop was picked by thousands of workers, most of whom came from London and treated the experience as their annual holiday.”

Other than the large quantity of beer drunk in Scotland, which required hops for the brewing process, I thought there might not be a Scottish angle to this story until, recently, after I’d cycled from Haddington to Longniddry in East Lothian, on a cyclepath  and footpath that was once a railway line, my Dad pointed out that I had cycled past a large feral hop plant growing beside a large ruined house next to the former railway. despite living up here in ARCTIC Scotland, this hop plant produces useable hops, so I think another visit late next summer will be in order for a wee bit of hop harvesting of our own. I fancy a wee home brew made with local Scottish-grown hops - that will be a novelty!

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