Hopping in Kent


Oast

The dawn mist rolls through the valley
Dampness chills the air,
Enveloping all that stands in its way
But tall pines, proud standing there,
Skeletal branches of old oak trees
Are stark shadows, black on grey,
Darkness clutching at morning’s tail
Struggling to light the way.

I leant on a gate, by the old kiln doors
Beside a coppice in the Weald,
Before the barn owl had gone to roost
Or rabbits were about the field.
I watched the mist settle into the vale
A watery sun peep through the copse
As the temperature fell I turned up the flames
In the kilns, that were drying the hops.

The roar of diesel burners
Silenced all sounds of the night,
Moths flew into the flickering flames
And a fox walked the beam of the light.
Steady the flame as the fans blew the heat
Through sulphur sticks, burning bright
Up through the hops on the slats above
On horsehair woven light.

Thick the reek of sulphur
That keep the Fuggles bright,
Choking the chatter of swooping bats
After flies in the Kentish night.
The thickening mist heavy laden with dew
Dripping off branches and leaves,
Off the stag-headed oak that stands by the oast
And dripped off the roundels and eaves.

Six hours or more the heat`s turned up,
Down and off in two,
Two kilns a day are dried and pressed
Until hop-picking is through.
No meter tells when hops are dry
Just knowledge, as of old,
Check the strigs and then turn them out
On the cooling room `till cold.

Dry all night, press all day,
Sleep in fits and starts,
Awake to whirring belts and chains
And rattling sides of carts.
Two grey Fergies for thirty years
Have trundled to and `fro,
With a raucous bark brakes that squeel
And the smell of T.V.O.

The cooling room piled high with hops
The old press, raised and waiting
Scuppet hops along the floor,
Into the pocket gaping.
The cast iron foot was lowered down,
Rattling through it’s socket,
Squeeze and fill ’till tightly packed,
Then sit and sew the pocket.

They still come down from London
As their families did before,
With children screaming, playing ’tag ,
In the fieds down by the shore.
The hopper- huts are scrubbed and clean
The campfire is burning bright,
With the stamp of feet and the fiddle playing,
They’ll sing and dance all night.

Bleary eyed they wake at dawn
And trudge down through the mist,
With all the cider that`s been drunk,
A little ‘ Brahms and Lizst,’
Wearing brightly coloured scarves
And aprons, thick with pollen-stain
They’ll pick the hops and fill the pokes
To load the kilns again.

I watched the bustling to and ’fro
As dew-splashed leaves were sparkling,
Reflecting sunlight, bright and clear
As the early mist was rising,
Scampering squirrels searched for cobs
Wild among the hedgerows,
Pheasants scratched for fallen seed
Beneath where sweet chestnut grows.

Wild life froze with startled stare
At peals of laughter from the hay barn,
As children jump from bale to bale
In the playground of the farm.
With a freedom they`ve not known before
From East-End tenements sent,
They never will forget their days,
While hopping down in Kent.