Monday, 9 January 2017

Peas, Beans & Hop Gardens.....

In the 1940s the extended Constant family seemed to be involved in a great deal more agricultural activities than those around us. Topics of conversation between my various aunts for much of the time when they were not actually vilifying each other or the neighbours seemed to revolve around peas, beans, potatoes, fruit - and of course hops. When my grandmother and aunts were busily preoccupied with working the fields closer to Crayford and Dartford, we often went pea-picking with Aunt Lou and Cousin Connie who were from my father’s side of the family and for some reason treated with suspicion by the Constants. As an eight year old I thought this might be because she had a large family of rather aggressive boys who had all passed the Eleven Plus and actually been allowed to go to Grammar School never mind the cost of the uniform. This fact was truly shocking to Old Nan, my maternal grandmother. I liked Connie but I was rather surprised to find that whilst I was simply allowed to play all day in the pea fields, she was required to do almost as many hours picking as her mother and thus she turned out to be not much fun at all. In Northfleet at that time, there were those who did and those who did not do field work and the latter group definitely thought themselves a cut above the former. We, of course seemed to do as much as was available, getting up on what were to be bitterly cold mornings whilst it was still dark and riding to the farms on the back of a lorry. Decades later I fully appreciate that this was a world my mother understood and was not intimidated by whereas the kind of work sought by the more traditional, decent working class caused her to feel overawed and apprehensive because she failed to understand the structures involved. In the middle of a pea field my mother felt completely at home. All day long she would gather vegetables and deliver them into sacks to be weighed, and at the end of each day collect perhaps five or six shillings. There was no lorry available for the home journey so we had to walk the several miles back to York Road and this she did willingly, almost happily, on the hottest days even stopping off at Simms’ corner shop to buy an unexpected treat in the form of a new fangled Ice Lolly with a cream centre. She liked pea picking more than many of the similar possibilities because once you pulled a nicely vast heap of bines from the ground, you could sit in comfort and pick them into the bucket at your side, to be transferred into the sacks. Beans on the other hand were `back breaking’ and potatoes even more so. I greatly looked forward to fruit picking, particularly soft fruits like strawberries and raspberries, for obvious reasons. I liked cherries best of all and looked forward to the short season with hard to suppress excitement. Sadly it seemed that once the men were back from the war they seemed to take over much of the cherry picking once more and my greatly hated Cousin George told me with enormous satisfaction that it was because men were more reliable in trees, being better on ladders. To demonstrate this he then climbed halfway up the apple tree outside the kitchen window with me in hot pursuit. It was on this afternoon of the cherry argument that somehow or other George was pushed from the tree and broke his collar bone but that is really beside the point. Despite my enduring love of and loyalty to the Kentish cherry, all fruits and vegetables paled into insignificance alongside the annual hop picking event and it mattered little that the hops themselves were not traditionally consumed until they had been turned into beer. In early May we would make a trip to the gardens to appropriate quantities of young hop shoots. This was done surreptitiously, arriving just before dusk when the farm workers would be unlikely to be around. The young hops would be soaked overnight in salt water and next day drained and simmered until tender then eaten with salt, pepper and a lump of butter. They tasted a little like asparagus. During the stringing season we, with Old Nan accompanied by Little Violet took a train trip or sometimes several buses, to Mereworth to `our’ farm to observe the strangest of rural crafts for an afternoon. Armed with a picnic of bread and cheese and cold tea, we sat on the edge of the gardens to watch the stilt walkers traverse the alleys of hops deftly stringing the plants overhead. The stilt walkers like circus performers, impressive as they made their measured progress along the poles, exhibiting the outlandish and bizarre dexterity needed to train the plants’ next stage of growth. In late August the excitement mounted because in early September the hops would be ready for picking and as many members of the family not otherwise engaged on more urgent business would be ready and willing to pick them. There were usually about twenty of us. My grandmother together with Little Violet, Aunt Martha with Pat, Aunt Maud with June and Desmond, Aunt Mag and Uncle Harold with young Harold, Leslie, Margaret and Ann, Freda with baby Susan, Uncle Edgar and wife with daughter Daphne, and of course my mother and me and my brother – all could be found boarding the pickers’ train from Maidstone station for the six weeks of high adventure. We went to the same farm each year at West Malling near Mereworth and lived in pickers’ huts, our family taking a third of those available so that it was almost like a tribal village. It was through the efforts of such bodies as the Society for Conveyance and Improved Lodging of Hop Pickers that specially built huts had been constructed before the first world war. They were all the same and gave each family about 16 square feet to live in. Sacks and straw were available to make the bunks, constructed one above the other, more comfortable. At the end of each row of huts was a `cookhouse’ where huge fires were lit and the cooking done. The only toilet facilities were improvised long drops behind the huts where the queues were often so long that we children abandoned them and simply went behind the nearest bush. The farm with the best facilities was reputed to be Whitbreads at Beltring where there was hot and cold water for showers, proper lavatories and even a twice weekly doctor’s surgery. However we were disinclined to go there because you had to behave and drunkenness and swearing were reported to the manager who recorded the misdeeds in a black book. Three misdemeanours and you were expelled. This would clearly not have suited Old Nan. I no longer remember the name of `our’ farm but the memories surrounding the six weeks of rural freedom are still vivid. In the 1940s a family of two adults and two children could earn between three and four pounds a week which meant a grand total of perhaps twenty or thirty pounds by the end of the season. One of the conditions of employment was that the hoppers must remain for the full term of the harvest and to ensure this half the pay was kept back each week and paid as a lump sum at the end of September. Sometimes only tokens were distributed during the period of picking but these could be spent in the local village, both to purchase supplies from the shop and also, most particularly, supplies at the pub. The nearest pub was visited regularly by the adults on Friday and Saturday nights and by my uncles and my grandmother most nights. Sometimes the children would be sent off to purchase bottles of beer from the off licence and these were liberally consumed in the cookhouse after dinner. Beer or no beer, sitting in the cookhouse watching the firelight dance and flicker after the meal was eaten is not easily forgotten. Nobody minded how long the children stayed up, and even when we did drift off to bed, we could hear the singing of `Nellie Dean’, `My Old Dutch’ and `Waiting At the Church’ long into the night. But it was up at five the next morning when the picking began again and being a child did not automatically exclude you from the hard work; we were all expected to stand at the bin and pick despite the hop plant’s soporific effects. However, my mother and aunts were agreeable to letting us finish our contribution at lunchtime each day when the only child still required to continue working, much like cousin Connie of the peas, was Little Violet because my grandmother had different standards and consequently poor Little Violet sometimes picked all day and fell asleep exhausted at six pm each evening. But the afternoons were playtime for the rest of us and we roamed the local villages and woodland in a shabby, disparate group, gathering nuts and berries and daily becoming less and less popular with the villagers. The older boys were adept at purloining hop tokens from the adults and these we could exchange for treats at the village store. Even once the war was officially over the return of treats such as ice cream and sweets was slow but strange items were on sale specifically to attract the young – Liquorice Wood for example, and Locust Beans. Liquorice Wood just looked like slivers of kindling but did in fact taste surprisingly of liquorice. It could not be swallowed and had to be spat out once the flavour had disappeared. Locust Beans were rather like hard, dried figs but I later found out that the thousands of little seeds inside were insect eggs of some kind and from time to time they were crawling with little white grubs. I ate them nevertheless. As the picking season progressed, more and more signs would appear outside pubs and businesses - `No Hoppers, No Gypsies’, at which time Cousin Margaret would be sent in to make the treat purchases because she was the oldest girl, had a nice smile and spoke politely. She also, somehow or other always managed to look cleaner and tidier than the rest of us. One year Margaret had acquired a pair of jodhpurs from the daughter of one of Uncle Harold’s mates who worked at the Crayford dog track, and she wore them daily over the picking period, ensuring a gracious reception at the village store. Somehow or other she managed to ignore the jeering of a group of teenage boys from the East End - `hey darling where’s yer ‘orse’ – as she appeared in them each morning and I was filled with admiration. The story of my mother’s unconventional entry into the world was retold each year by my grandmother, and we all became familiar with the details. `Born right ‘ere in this very place my Nellie was – come early she did and oh she was a tiny little thing, no bigger than a milk jug. We wrapped ‘er up in a poke and I ‘ad to stop picking the rest of that day. I went back picking the next day like – and she came with me and lay in the bin all day nice and comfy on all them ‘ops’. And at this stage Nan, not generally known for her sentiment, could actually be seen to have a tear or two in her eyes. Tears or not there could be no doubting that she was never happier than in the hop gardens with her family all around her listening to tales of yesteryear as she deftly nipped the buds from garlands of bine into the bin. We, a larger group by far than those around us, always managed to pick more than other families moving rapidly enough along the drifts, or alleyways of plants, day after day to make the tally men wary and other pickers resentful. But hostility never worried Nan who simply maintained they were jealous and advised us to Bugger Them! Once or twice fights broke out and on one scandalous occasion Old Nan tore the hooped ear ring out of a woman’s ear, tearing the ear lobe so that she had to be treated at the Hoppers’ Hospital at Five Oak Green. The matter was also reported to the Police and the following morning a Constable searched us out in the Gardens and took a statement then warned Nan that she could find herself charged if she wasn’t careful. The whispering and rumour that swept through the pickers on this occasion was astonishing and managed to subdue my belligerent grandmother for several hours. It was in the hop gardens I first began to recognise that there was something distinctly different about our family.. We were not just working class poor; we were certainly not part of the respectable working class poor. We were not respectable or reputable in any way. Not a single one of us was highly regarded or even well thought of. We were the very opposite of decent, good and upright. As a bunch we were undoubtedly untrustworthy, unreliable and devious. When we cheerfully appeared, `mob-handed’ into any situation it was not long before mutterings of `riff raff’ and even `diddicais’ tripped from the tongues of the more traditionally decent poor. By the age of ten I think I completely understood what I viewed as this regrettable truth about the family. These days I simply find it delightfully colourful!

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