We speak to John, one of the bro’s from Hackney Brocals, about summers hop-picking in Kent as a childInterviewed by Melissa Fry
How did you get into hop-picking?
It all stems from my parents. It was their life and it therefore automatically involved me when I was born. I was about 7 years old they introduced me to hop-picking, when they took me with them, down to the hop fields. While at school we had 6 weeks off for the summer and I spent this time picking the hops down in Kent. I liked it. It was a different world down there, mainly because of the fresh air and country life. We stayed in huts, which because my father was a painter and decorator, he had transformed them into living accommodation.
So which other family members were there?
I am an only child, infact my mum and dad actually met down at the hop-picking. I even met all of my cousins down there, My dad was from a big family with 13 brothers and sisters, who all travelled down to Kent in the summer. We all had family bins to pick the hops in.
Did you like going to the hop fields?
Yes, and it’s still one of my favourite places to go. When its summer I go down there every Tuesday. I like to go to Maidstone market and from there I visit the village we used to go for the hop-picking. I often spend the rest of the day either sitting by the pond feeding the ducks or going to the hop fields and just having a look round. It’s a different world, you’ve got to get out of London.
Has lockdown prevented you from visiting?
Yes because of my situation I couldn’t even leave the house, I even had to get my shopping brought in. In normal years, I’ve taken my friends that I meet up with on a Saturday. We would go to a pub called The Vine and have a meal. It’s called the vine, because that’s what the hops grow on. It’s an easy life down. There there’s no hustle and bustle ... take it easy.
“You know what they say about hops. If you put them under the pillow you get a good night sleep”
You had a large family picking hops, but who was the best?
Yes there was 32 cousins! But I have to say two of my aunties were the best, they were very fast at picking.One week my mum and dad had to get back to London, and they left me with the family bin to continuing picking hops while they were away. When they were due to come back to the hop fields, their house in London flooded, and I was stuck down in Kent on my own. I was only 14 years old, I coped alright though, and a couple of my cousins came down to help me out. It was a bit frightening to begin with, but I managed.
What colours do you associate with hop-picking?
Green when I think back, I’d love you to see one. You know what they say about hops. If you put them under the pillow you get a good night sleep. Buy yes, green because picking them makes your fingers go green. The smell is like a pint of beer, they smell exactly the same. It’s of course where beer comes from.
So did you enjoy using your hands?
Yes I was very good with my hands. When in left school I became an engineer, I took a City & Guilds in tool-making. Using machinery such as a mill for metal-working. We used to make hospital equipment, heart monitors, kidney machines hospital trolleys, all from metal. We had an electrical department upstairs, which created circuit boards. I’ve got all these storage boxes at home and they are full up with photographs of the past. There’s some of the hop fields, and the huts! Each evening we would sit around a fire. The word “barbecue” didn’t exist in those days, but we probably invented it. We had a long piece of metal scaffolding which held the pot over the fire. We’d cook handmade sausages from the village. Lovely fresh food.