Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Those Long Gone Days of Going Hopping........

As a family The Constants in all their diversity could definitely be described as enthusiastic if intermittent agricultural workers. This was primarily due to the influence of my maternal grandmother who was never happier than when she was harvesting the earth’s bounty. Digging for potatoes had an agreeable effect upon her general demeanour and the sight of orderly rows of peas and beans seemed to somehow bring out the best in her. This affection for the freedoms involved in part time Field Work had certainly been passed down to my mother and a number of her sisters so that they would as one descend upon the pea fields of North Kent with enthusiasm as soon as the season began. They signed up for Piecework with a strange mixture of gratitude and belligerence that was the hallmark of those who clearly saw themselves as the Independent Contractors of the Lower Orders of their day.

It has to be said that the family members were exceptionally reliable seasonal workers, applying themselves diligently throughout weather that was at times hardly indicative of Summer and at the same time largely enjoying the solid, earthy labour they turned their attention to. Old Nan maintained that you couldn’t beat a good stable week or two with the Pea Bines even though all the the bending played Merry Hell with her rheumatism. Ten days of Soft Fruits also earned her seal of approval and she was even capable of waxing lyrical over a yield of onions. However, all fruits and vegetables paled into insignificance when put alongside the annual even of Going Hopping and it mattered little that the hops themselves were not traditionally consumed until they had been turned into beer. My Grandmother could become passionate indeed about hops, so much so that each year in early May she would insist that we make a trip to the nearest Gardens to inspect the development of the young green shoots. She at the same time appropriated a reasonable quantity of them whilst we were there. This entire undertaking was carried out surreptitiously, arriving just before dusk when the farm workers were unlikely to be around and calling into The Plough on the way home for a celebratory glass or two of Pale Ale whilst we children ran riot outside and consumed packets of Smith’s Crisps. The young hops themselves would be soaked overnight in salt water and next day drained and simmered until tender to be eaten, tentatively in my case, with salt, pepper and a lump of butter. They tasted just a little bit like asparagus which of course none of us had ever sampled so we were not aware of the culinary connection at the time.

You could say that Old Nan never took her eye off the ball for a moment as far as hops were concerned. During the stringing season we would take a train trip or sometimes several buses, to Mereworth to Our Farm to observe the strangest of rural crafts for an afternoon’s entertainment. Armed with a picnic of bread and cheese and cold tea, we sat on the edge of the gardens to watch the stilt walkers traverse the narrow alleys of hops deftly stringing the plants overhead. Impressive as circus performers they made their measured progress along the poles, exhibiting the outlandish and bizarre dexterity needed to train the next stage of growth. In mid August the excitement mounted because now the hops were very nearly ready for picking and as many members of the family not otherwise engaged on more urgent business would be ready and willing to pick them. There were usually about twenty of us. My grandmother together with Motherless Little Violet, Aunt Martha with Pat, Aunt Maud with June and Desmond, Aunt Mag and Uncle Harold with young Harold, Leslie, Margaret and Ann, Freda with baby Susan, Uncle Edgar and wife with daughter Daphne, and of course my mother, brother and me – all of us could be found emerging from the pickers’ train at Maidstone station poised for six weeks of high adventure.

We went to the same farm each year at West Malling near Mereworth and lived in pickers’ huts, our family taking a third of those available so that it was almost like a tribal village. Later I was to learn that it was through the efforts of such bodies as the Society for Conveyance and Improved Lodging of Pickers that specially built huts had been constructed before the first world war. They were all the same and gave each family about 16 square feet to live in. Sacks and straw were available to make the bunks, constructed one above the other, more comfortable. At the end of each row of huts was a `cookhouse’ where huge fires were lit and the cooking done. The only toilet facilities were improvised long drops behind the huts where the queues were often so long that we children simply abandoned them and used the nearest bush. The farm with the best facilities was always said to be Whitbreads at Beltring where there was hot and cold water for showers, proper lavatories and even a twice weekly doctor’s surgery. However we were disinclined to go there because you had to Behave Properly and drunkenness and even swearing were misdemeanours and reported to the manager who recorded the transgressions in a black book. Three offences and you were expelled. This would clearly not have suited Old Nan one little bit.

I no longer remember the name of Our Farm but the memories surrounding the six weeks of rural freedom are still astonishingly vivid. In the 1940s a family of two adults and two children could earn between three and four pounds a week which meant a grand total of perhaps twenty or thirty pounds by the end of the season which was enough to make a great deal of difference to families such as ours. One of the conditions of employment was that the hoppers must remain for the full term of the harvest and to ensure this half the earnings were retained and paid as a lump sum at the end of September. Sometimes only tokens were distributed during the period of picking and these could be spent in the local village, both to purchase supplies from the shop and also, most particularly, supplies at the pub. The nearest pub was visited regularly by the adults on Friday and Saturday nights and by my uncles and my grandmother most nights. Sometimes we children would be sent off to purchase bottles of beer from the off license and these were consumed in the cookhouse after dinner by those who remained behind. Beer or no beer, sitting in the cookhouse watching the firelight dance and flicker after the meal was eaten is not easily forgotten. Nobody minded how long the children stayed up, and even when we did drift off to bed, we could hear the comforting refrains of Nellie Dean, My Old Dutch and Waiting At The Church, long into the night.

But it was up promptly at five the next morning when the day’s work began and being a child certainly did not automatically exclude you from the hard work; we were all expected to stand at the bins and pick despite the soporific effect of the plants. However, my mother and aunts were generally agreeable to letting us finish our contribution at noon each day when the only child still required to continue working, was Motherless Little Violet who, most unfortunately for her, was being brought up by Old Nan. My Grandmother was an exacting caregiver and consequently poor Little Violet despite her tender years sometimes picked all day and fell asleep exhausted at six pm each evening. But the afternoons were playtime for the rest of us and we roamed the local villages and woodland in a shabby, disparate group, gathering cobnuts and berries and daily becoming less and less popular with the villagers. The older boys were adept at purloining hop tokens from the adults and these we could exchange for treats at the village store. Even once the war was officially over the return of treats such as ice cream and sweets was slow but strange items were on sale specifically to attract the young – Liquorice Wood for example, and Locust Beans and other delicacies that would no doubt cause most of us to shudder these days. I distinctly recall that the Locust Beans were full of little maggots but I knocked them back with abandon despite that.

As the season progressed, more and more signs would appear outside pubs and businesses – No Hoppers, No Gypsies, at which time my cousin Margaret would be sent in to make the treat purchases because she was the oldest girl, had a nice smile and spoke politely. She also, somehow or other always managed to look cleaner and tidier than the rest of us. One year Margaret had acquired a pair of jodhpurs from the daughter of one of Uncle Harold’s mates who worked at the Crayford dog track, and she wore them daily over the picking period, ensuring a gracious reception at the village store. Somehow or other she managed to ignore the jeering of a group of teenage boys from the East End enquiring as to the location of her horse. I was filled with admiration for her composure.

Each year without fail, the story of my mother’s unconventional entry into the world as a somewhat premature infant, was retold by my grandmother, and we all became familiar with the details. That she had Come Early and was such a tiny little thing, no bigger than a milk jug, that she had been Born in a Caul that had been sold to a sailor a day or two later, for luck because as everybody knew, the owner of a Caul would never die by drowning. And that the trauma of the sudden birth Put Paid to Picking for the rest of the day though the new mother was Fit As a Fiddle again the next.

And at this stage my Grandmother, not generally known for her sentiment, could actually be seen to have a tear or two in her eye. There could be no doubting that she was never happier than in the hop gardens with her family all around her, telling tales of yesteryear as she deftly nipped the buds from garlands of bine into the bin. We, a larger group by far than those around us, always managed to pick more than other families moving rapidly enough along the drifts, or alleyways of plants, day after day to make the tally men wary and other pickers resentful. But hostility never worried Nan because she said Bugger The Lot of Them and it was just Bleedin’ Jealousy that was their problem.

Invariably as the weeks progressed there would be growing discord amongst the Kentish groups and the large East-End families, especially once they were joined at the weekends by husbands and brothers. Once or twice fights broke out and on one scandalous occasion Old Nan ripped the hooped ear ring out of a woman’s ear, tearing the ear lobe so badly that she had to be treated at the Hoppers’ Hospital at Five Oak Green. The matter was also reported to the Police and the following morning a Constable searched us out in the Gardens and took a statement and gave a Warning about being Charged. The whispering and rumour that swept through the pickers on this occasion was astonishing and managed to subdue my Grandmother for several days.

It was in the hop gardens at Mereworth that I first began to recognise that there was something distinctly different about our family. As I grew older and more street wise this knowledge established itself firmly into what was clearly evident. We were not just Working Class Poor; we were certainly not part of the Respectable Working Class Poor. We were not respectable or reputable in any way. Not a single one of us was highly regarded or well thought of. We were the very opposite of Decent, Good and Upright. As a bunch we were undoubtedly untrustworthy, unreliable and devious. When we cheerfully appeared, Mob-Handed into any situation it was not long before mutterings of Riff Raff and even Diddicais tripped from the tongues of the more traditionally Decent Poor.

Despite our undoubted position at the very Bottom of the Heap, over those post war years we picked with both fervour and fortitude . The six week season also served as a time of familial bonding when we cousins, at each other’s throats for the rest of the year, mostly rubbed along together with an unusual degree of tolerance. The only young Constants conspicuous by their absence from these annual events were Tommy, Sandra and Paul, who belonged to Aunt Rose and were never allowed to join us. This was because Aunt Rose had the misfortune to be married to Uncle Mervyn who was Welsh and a serving officer in the Air Force and this caused him to be Up His Own Arse. Even Aunt Mag agreed that he was a Snotty Nosed Git and my grandmother maintained he was raising his children to be Little Tight Arses. They were to be pitied having a father who denied them a free six week break in the country every year but then Mervyn, on top of believing himself to be better than the next man, was tight fisted - so mean he wouldn’t Give His Shit To The Crows.

We went into collective mourning in the early 1950s when the ritual Country Holiday became a thing of the past as the majority of farms quite suddenly became totally mechanised. I was about thirteen or fourteen years old when we completed our final picking season. But for several years afterwards my Grandmother and aunts would regularly take trips into the local countryside, vainly visiting farms to make hopeful enquiries as to whether pickers were needed. The culture and language of Going Hopping then sank almost without trace. And terms such as Bagsters, Bines, Bookers, Drifts, Footshoe Money, Hop Dogs, Hop Tokens, Pokes, Stringers and Tally Sticks, disappeared from the vocabulary completely and in fact only in more recent years have been resurrected in the form of information in Museums for the instruction and edification of schoolchildren on day trips. The Oast Houses are still there and have now been turned into cottages for those with sufficient financial resources to afford them. Their presence is oddly comforting because when I drove the Kentish lanes a year ago they seemed to be all that remained of the Going Hopping Tradition.

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