In recent days work has been going on ‘stringing’ the poles at the hop fields to the rear of Bourne Park. This is traditionally a job for February or March.
Where, in previous centuries, hops were trained to grow up temporary poles, the 20th century saw the innovation of growing hops up strings affixed to permanent poles. To string, a farm hand known as the ‘stringer’ uses a long stick sometimes called a ‘stringing goad’ or, in some parts, a ‘monkey’, to extend strings of natural coir from pegs in the ground between the poles to hooks located at the top.
The hop plants, growing at the base of each pole, are perennials which grow back from the root stock each year after being cut down. From about April onwards the hop stems, sometimes referred to as ‘bines,’ are trained or ‘twiddled’ as they grow taller through the Spring to climb up the strings towards the tops of the poles. It is apparently very important to train them to spiral clockwise round the string otherwise they will fall off.
Hops are considered to be one of the most difficult crops for a farmer to grow and they need constant monitoring for wind damage, pests and disease which can spread very rapidly. Despite these problems Kent farmers have a rich tradition of success and it is said that in a good year the hops should reach the tops of the poles by Midsummer’s Day. Once full height is achieved lateral stems will begin to grow and then, as daylight begins to shorten, they come into ‘burr’ (bud) and produce the cone shaped flowers for which they are renowned. These are harvested by teams of workers in September going into October.
Although still fondly regarded as a defining aspect of Kent’s rural history and landscape the hop growing industry has actually been in decline since the late 19th century. After a peak of 77,000 acres of land being used for farming hops in Kent in 1878, only 11,000 were being used by 1932 and the current level is thought to be less than 3,000 acres.
These days most of the hops produced in Bridge are exported for beer production in America. We wish our local farmer success with this year’s crop.
Reference sources: The British Hop Association; The High Weald.org; Hopping Down in Kent.org.uk (Part of the Museum of Kent Life, Cobtree)