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Childhood joy in the hop fields


On these short, wet, winter days it's bitersweet remembering the long, warm days of last summer.  Blackberries were the biggest I have ever seen, and, on the cusp of autumn, the fragrance of apples permeated the air. On one stretch of road between Ballingham and Holme Lacy, the hedgerow was bursting with fruit. But there was something else cramming for space, another fruit - the hop, the wild hop. It was bursting out of the greenery, large, plump, and ripe for the picking. With the River Wye meandering just below, and the hills of Woolhope and Haugh Wood beyond, it is the prettiest of spots. It’s possible I have become inured to such scenes. In the summer at least, I was out running or walking along such tracks at least four times a week and see so much loveliness. I do often think how lucky I am to have all this on my doorstep, for free. Can you imagine seeing this with fresh eyes, for the first, arriving on the train from the blackened, industrial Black Country? The contrast must have been almost unimaginable. 


This was the experience of many migrant workers and their families arriving from the Midlands and South Wales for their annual hop harvest in the pre-mechanised days, when it was all picked by hand. Either stepping off the train or off the back of a truck, the effect -  the sights, smells, tastes - is still felt by many former hop pickers, even some 60 years later. It was a whole new world.


Among them is Sylvia Shaw. So evocative were her experiences of the hop harvest, Sylvia and her husband, Patrick, later moved to the area with the express purpose of being close to hops again. From 1932, Sylvia’s mother came for the hop harvest every year, bringing with her family of eight girls and four boys. That was a lot of mouths to feed, and, in the hop yard, they all had to do their bit. This was an important money-earning exercise for Sylvia’s mother and most certainly no holiday, though the fresh air and fresh food would have made up for it. No, this was an opportunity for many working class families to raise money for new winter coats and shoes, or to fill the shed with coal for the winter. 


As the hop picking harvest approached, Sylvia’s mum had to be organised. Her epic preparation for their ‘migration’ south to Herefordshire began months before, with plenty of squirrelling away of tins of corned beef or shrimp paste, ready to put into her special hop picking box. This resembled a tea chest (the Black Country Museum has examples, with family names painted in bold on the front) that travelled with them to the farm every year. The keys to the box, on a piece of cord, were ever present around her neck. No one was going to get near this chest and they did, they would have to get past her first. Another box contained bedding and a change of clothing for the children, usually on a Sunday.


Sylvia’s eyes sparkle when she recalls the family’s hop picking ‘holidays’. For her and her siblings, it really was one big holiday. Yes, there was picking in the morning, but there was a lot of time for play and adventure on the farm and the orchards in the afternoons.


Sylvia: ‘I remember the coach would come and pick us up from the Black Country, with the boxes. We were excited because we didn’t have that many coach trips. When we got to the barracks at the hop farm it was beautiful. The air even smelled clean. Everybody would get off, you’d get into your barracks, you’d start fetching the water, you’d start lighting the fires ready for cups of tea and the lunch, get cooking.’


Their home for the harvest was the barracks. Some pickers went as far as decorating theirs with wallpaper to make it a home-from-home. While Sylvia’s mum didn’t go quite that far, she still had to attend to the domestics of family life. One of her first jobs was making up the beds, on straw, covering them with sheets and blankets. Here, all the children, with mum, would sleep blissfully each night, listening to the new and strange sounds of the countryside. These days, people might spend a lot of money having a similar experience with their children.


It didn’t take long for the city pickers to reach an easy rhythm of life on the farm.  


Sylvia: ‘We had Kelly lamps for the night time and in the morning, we would go to the farmhouse and they would fill it with oil ready for the evening. Mam always had a ribbon on hers and it used to be a Scotch pattern ribbon, so she always knew she had that one and didn’t have anybody else’s. While we were taking the Kelly lamps to the farm, my mum always put her order in for a batch cake and the farmers used to have it delivered from Tenbury bakery shop. And we used to have our milk, and used to have your own jugs, you fetched it and you paid for it. The farmwife had hers in their cellar and you’d go with her to get it and come up with this lovely milk. Creamy but nothing like today.


‘When they used to light the fires, and when mum had her own fire, they used to have all the wood from the apple trees, and it used to be in a pile and we used to call it faggots in them days. We did a bit of scrumping, we went after the nuts, hazelnuts. We knew all about nature and on a Sunday, in the morning, we’d all go walk along the lanes and we’d all got a stick, I don’t know what we had a stick for but it was a walking stick, it was the elderflower and we used to mark it with knives, make fancy patterns on them.’


Such simple joys of childhood that are as vivid for Sylvia today as they were then. Never forget to take pleasure in the simple things in life.


By Marsha O'Mahony


John Barber

27/02/2019, 09:02 am
A delightful story - beautifully written and evoking memories from a bygone era but still relatively recent. The first 21 years of my life was spent in Hereford and my thoughts are still strongly linked to the city, the surrounding countryside and my memories of a great childhood spent in that beautiful county.
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