Herefordshire’s annual hop harvest brought thousands of hand pickers to villages, transforming sleepy hamlets beyond recognition. Descriptions of night time descending on the Frome Valley dotted with campfires, the echoes of music, voices, and singing, are almost biblical. These pickers brought the harvest in, but other enterprises benefited too, turning these idyllic rural spots into thriving commercial hubs, places of haggling and dealing, horse trading, shops, ice-cream sellers, and fish sellers and more. But it was a particularly bumper time for local pubs, who experienced a fruitful harvest of their own from this temporary influx of people, many with some spare change in their pockets and a raging thirst to quell.
In the 1930s and 1940s, the parents of John Bunn, 92, of Checkley, ran the pub at the Newtown crossroads, in its day the pub of choice for many a hop picker. Last orders were called a long time ago now, but the good times at this hostelry still resonate. Though perhaps too many good times as far as the local constabulary were concerned, who insisted the Bunns build an additional shed to accommodate drinkers that used to spill onto the road and grass verges. ‘I was only a boy then,’ said John, ‘ but my job was to fill the glasses with ale and pass it to father, who would then pass through the window. We were doing that all day. Each harvest year, we always lost lots of glasses and father had to buy more. I do remember the gypsies did a lot of wheeling and dealing with horses outside on the road too, trotting up and down the road bareback, all day and cash changing hands. I mean people always say Christmas time was the busiest time but with the hops it was always September. It kept the landlords for the rest of the winter.’
Mervyn Carless, the last hop field wirework contractor in the country, remembers the sight vividly: ‘It was incredible. There were so many people in the villages, the pubs were full. My local public house was about a quarter of a mile from home and there they used to have a like village hut and because there were so many people they would fill and old tin bath full of beer and everybody would bring their own jam jar or jug or whatever and they would scoop their beer out of the bath and go and pay at the trap hole and they’d sit all around the crossroads at Newtown. It must have been a sight to behold.’
The road through Bishops Frome could barely accommodate the sheer numbers, with people jostling for space on the roads and pavements, making way for wagons, horses and the odd vehicle.The villages two pubs did a roaring trade of course. There was much beer consumed, songs sung, wagers made, romances made, pledges broken, and of course, the odd fight. Always on hand was the local Bobby, PC Fred Harris. The late Barry Parker of Instone Court, Munderfield, remembers a policeman who knew how to control an unruly bunch, with some unorthodox methods: ‘PC Fred Harris was in charge, but he had his hands full. He was a lovely policeman but they said he ruled with a bunch of five, and he did too! He always had a couple of mates come along and help during hop picking. The pickers would know him of course, they respected him. He did once hit one bloke in the pub at Newtown and knocked the bloke out behind him!’
Some of these pubs have closed, others remain open, but we are unlikely to see these scenes of the hop harvest again. We can preserve the stories though. It’s never too late to tell us yours.
By Marsha O'Mahony
Photo courtesy of Tom Nellest.