Wild Hops

This seems to be a phenomenal year for wild fruit; the blackberries are in perfect condition, and the hawthorn bushes are red with berries in some place. One thing that seems to have really enjoyed the beautifully warm summer is the wild hops, which surround us in the hedgerows, and have invaded our garden this year.

I don’t mind, as they’re very graceful, and their harvest-festival associations with bounty and plenty and their lovely muted colours mean they are very welcome, as far as I’m concerned.

Part of the Cannabaceae family, which includes hemp (the source of cannabis and marijuana), they also have a very mild sedative effect, and have been used for hundreds if not thousands of years to relieve stress and tackle insomnia. The Romans used it to soothe anxiety, and King George III popularised the hop-filled pillow to alleviate insomnia. This effect is thanks to lupulin, a substance found in the oils and resins, which was traditionally used as an appetite stimulant, painkiller and sedative.

This is all very well, but most people know hops for one thing – beer. They have been used to flavour beer since late medieval times, but only became the main flavour around the end of the sixteeenth century; until then lots of herbs were used, including bog-myrtle, wormwood and ground ivy (aka ‘ale-hoof’). They help preserve the beer for longer, as well as imparting their rich, bitter flavour.

Hops like sunshine, and the main hop gardens used to be found in the sunny east of England and the Midlands. These hop gardens were often harvested by trainloads of Londoners, brought in en masse and housed in huts and  temporary housing by the hundreds. This was a welcome opportunity for women and children, especially, to escape the pollution and strain of London, and get some fresh air, experience the countryside and meet up with old friends, many of whom went to the same place year after year after year.

My dad, who was a child in South London in the 1950s, spent his summers hop-picking in Kent with his family, living in huts and being free to roam the fields all day, as he was too young to work. The family had been doing it for years, before & during the war (apparently they described watching the Battle of Britain unfold overhead), with the women and children living in huts all summer, joined by the men at weekends.

My great-grandmother, and the huts they lived in for the summer.

Hop vines (or ‘bines’) were grown up poles, tied up in the spring (‘twiddled’) by gypsies on stilts (they followed the seasonal jobs as the year progressed), then when ripe they’d be hauled down and the ripe hops stripped off and put into sacks, when the Tally Man would come round and tot up what was picked by each family, as it was paid as piece-work.

I’m sure, like any outdoor, manual job, it had its hardships, but in all the accounts I’ve read all I’ve found is wonderfully fond reminiscences, and I can imagine the freedom, camaraderie and change of scene must have been a highlight of the year for many inner-city families. Apparently my family were still going well into the 1950s, and probably would have continued for longer except that my dad got a place at the grammar school and couldn’t just disappear for most of September any more.

Hop poles, some already cleared.

David Essex reminisces about his childhood hop-picking in his autobiography, making it sound very special:

“I saw stars for the first time in clear skies away from the industry of our area. Falling asleep on a hay smelling mattress under a gently flickering oil lamp as the adult sang songs round a campfire was magical.”

He added: “My mum and nan did most of the work, leaving me to climb trees and go wild in the country, including one high jump over a fence to avoid a charging bull.”

At the weekend, his dad and other men would visit and they would have football matches on the fields, go fishing and sit outside the pubs. “Even at the time, I knew these days were idyllic, and sixty odd years on, I can still recall how special they were.”

With the revival of micro-breweries and craft beers, hops are back in the spotlight, with many varieties imported from Europe or the USA to flavour specific brews. English hops are now harvested mostly either mechanically, or by foreign students living in bunkhouses, but maybe with the growing enthusiasm for local provenance, traditional skills and products with a ‘story’, there may be a revival in home-grown and hand-picked hops. Whatever happens, I’m going to enjoy them framing the garden for the last gasp of summer.


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