Post Memories: Hop-picking memories shared at Valence House
PUBLISHED: 09:54 28 April 2017 | UPDATED: 09:54 28 April 2017
For children today. “hopping” means jumping on one leg, but for older readers the word conjures up memories of working in the hopfields in Kent over the summer holidays.
Local soft drinks enterprise COMPANY Drinks is encouraging people to get together and share these stories at monthly events at Valence House.
One such hop-picker was Thelma Clayton, 82, who shared her reminisces with the Post from her flat in Fred Tibble Court.
As a newlywed, she jumped at the chance to go hopping with her husband’s family – but got rather more than she bargained for.
Whilst lots of people got their first experience of hopping as their children, Thelma said: “I had never been until I was 22 and I had a five-month-old baby.
“My husband’s family went hop-picking and I thought it must be lovely.”
She said that they went ahead in a lorry, even taking furniture with them, whilst Thelma and her son Michael travelled to the farm at Paddock Wood by train, via Tunbridge Wells.
When Thelma arrived, she soon realised why they needed furniture: “When I got there my face was a picture. The huts were animal storage huts, Fred’s mother whitewashed the inside and filled a palliasse full of straw.”
This palliasse – a strong stiff bag – was put on a pile of sticks or “faggots” to make their bed for the summer.
Thelma said: “I thought, ‘where have I come to? Where have I brought my baby to?’”
Baby Michael did not settle well into country living, which made it difficult for Thelma to look after him and work in the fields – so she found a different way to help out.
“I had to do the cooking. They lit a fire and hang a big pot over it on a hook and I though ‘what am I going to do? I have only cooked in an oven?’”
But Thelma, who is still as sprightly and determined now as she was then 60 years ago, rolled up her sleeves and got to work – and learned some cooking tips from an unexpected source.
The visitors from Barking weren’t the only people who would head to the hop farms in Kent. Gypsies often joined them for the seasonal work, although they had their wagons to live in rather than the shabby huts.
Thelma was initially nervous about meeting them, but the common factor of motherhood bridged the culture gap: “A Gypsy woman came up and asked for a teat for her baby’s bottle, and a cigarette.”
When she heard that her son had bitten through his and was crying, Thelma shared what she had, and soon met the woman’s family: “All these Gypsy wagons came in and a man came marching up and said: ‘This is for you’.”
He presented Thelma with a box of vegetables, and 20 cigarettes: “He said: ‘That’s for giving my baby a teat for the bottle. Anything you want, we will get for you.’”
“I must say they were really lovely people, they were really nice.”
“The Gypsy man brought me these beautiful big apples and said I could make a lovely apple pie.
“I said ‘how?!’ He said to get a biscuit tin and a tin plate and showed me how to make it in the fire. It was the best apple pie I ever made.”
By the end of the summer, Thelma was even roasting potatoes in the fire with that biscuit tin.
The open-air kitchen worked well, but the toilets were a target for mischievous youths.
“We all had a bucket in our hut if you needed to do a wee in the night,” Thelma remembered.
These were emptied into holes that were inside wooden huts – usually.
“Boys would pull the huts away, and I fell into the hole! It was terrible.”
To get clean, she had to swim in a nearby lake.
But it wasn’t all work and grime; there were ways to entertain yourself, and of course there was the pay to look forward to, which was based on how many bushels full of hops you managed to pick: “The money was really good – that’s why we went, but if you took your kids they ended up missing a week of school, so the school fined you 10 bob.”
Thelma also said there was a great sense of camaraderie at being away from home for the summer: “At night we all used to sit round the fire and there was a women called Lally that used to tell the most horrific ghost stories. I couldn’t sleep at night!”
“On the last night we used to take the faggots and straw out into the field and burn it in a big bonfire and have the biggest party. Everybody came, even the farmer.”
“It was an experience and I would love to do it now. I’ll never forget it because it was the first time I ever had a holiday.”
The next Hopping Afternoon at Valence House is on Saturday June 17. 2pm to 3.30pm. The May event is Upminster Tap Room, Sunnyside Gardens, on Saturday May 20.