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The Oasts of Kent

by Richard Crowhurst

OastFirst time visitors to Kent and Sussex are often puzzled by these brick or stone built barns with their round or square towers. The history of the oast house is almost a microcosm of agricultural activity in 'The Garden of England' in the 19th century. Oast houses played an important role in much of my early life -- during my formative years I lived on a farm with an impressive six-kiln oast, I had friends who lived in converted oast houses, and the first company I worked for after leaving college had its offices in a converted oast house.

Oast houses were designed to dry hops (Humulus lupulus L.), the climbing plants whose dried female flowers became a vital ingredient in the brewing of beer, which overtook traditional ale (brewed with just malt) in popularity following the introduction of hops in the 17th century. Hops add flavour and aroma to beer, making it clearer and less perishable. Thanks to hops the modern British drink of 'bitter' was born.

As bitter grew in popularity, commercial growing techniques for hops were developed. Hops were grown in 'gardens,' which consisted of a wire framework suspended above chestnut posts. From these wires lengths of string were suspended and the shoots of the hop plants were trained up these strings from the hop crowns, planted in the ground. The gardens were strung and maintained by stilt-walkers (a highly specialised job) and the mature hops were harvested by hand in August. Most gardens were located in the southeast of England, although an area around Herefordshire, Worcestershire and, briefly, Shropshire and Gloucestershire was also important.

The crop was picked by thousands of workers, most of whom came from London and treated the experience as their annual holiday. The 'hoppers huts' that can still be seen at the Museum of Kent Life, and other locations in Kent, illustrate the rough conditions in which whole families lived during their only visits to the countryside. The picking was organised by bin-men and paid by the 'tally' -- a token system based on the number of baskets or 'bins' picked by each person.

Oast and HopsOnce picked, the hops needed to be dried on the day of harvest, and this explains the proliferation of oast houses in the main hop growing areas. An oast consists of a 'barn' section, together with the distinctive 'kiln' or 'roundel.' In the barn fresh hops from the gardens were unloaded, and dried hops were cooled on the upper floor before being packed and pressed into large Hessian sacks, called pockets. The upper floor of the kiln consisted of a latticed floor of wood and wire onto which the green hops were laid. A fire was lit below and the air channelled through the floor to dry the hops. In the 19th century fires were usually fueled by coal or coke, but later gas and oil-fired burners took over. The humid air driven off the crop was channelled up the conical roof of the kiln and out through the distinctive wooden cowl. These were usually designed with a vane, which swung round with the wind and ensured a good draught to feed the fire. Maintaining the right amount of heat at the right time was another skilful job, and specialist 'Oasties' were employed for the hopping season.

In my youth I was lucky enough to live on a farm and witness the last hop harvest being dried in the mid-eighties. The harvest revolved around the last operating kilns of a set of six near the hamlet of Crouch near Plaxtol, known locally known as the 'Six Grey Ladies.' The crop was harvested by a machine (a process that became common in the 1950s) and the hops were stripped from the 'bine' by a vast machine that occupied its own shed at the end of farmyard. The hops were dried in one of the two operating kilns with the heat being supplied by a gas burner. After this final harvest the hop garden was ploughed up and used like any other field, while the oasts became stables and general storage sheds. Today these buildings, like many other oast houses, are luxury houses.

Oast kilns began as square towers which were easier to build. Around 1840 it was decided that the heat distribution was better in round kilns and so this became the predominant design. However, as science advanced it was proved that square kilns were more efficient after all. As a result, square kilns regained their popularity in the 1890s. Most kilns are topped with the familiar white-painted cowl and weather vane, but some, especially those along the Kent and Sussex border, have a simpler, squatter, wooden chimney-type of vent.

Oast

Many of these historic buildings have been converted for other uses, including offices, warehouses, shops and workshops. Even those that remain on farms are seldom used for their original purpose, often becoming simply sheds for storage or stables for horses. Oast houses are desirable as houses and there are even companies that specialise in fitting furniture into the round kilns. On any visit to the Garden of England you are bound to see an oast house in the distance, or beside the road. Taking the time to understand these monuments to agricultural industrialisation is well worth the effort.

More Information:

Oast The history of hop growing could fill several books. For those whose imagination has been captured by these enigmatic buildings and who want to know more, the following websites are an excellent starting point.

The National Hop Association of England's site covers both the history of the crop and provides details of the hop and brewing trades today.
http://www.hops.co.uk

Wealden Hops Ltd is a commercial company and one of five groups responsible for marketing the crop in the UK. Their website contains some historical information.
http://www.wealden-hops.co.uk

The history of oast houses can be explored further at The Kent Oast House and Hop Garden
http://www.digiserve.com/peter/oast.htm

The Oasts and Hop Kiln History site, though not yet complete, has extensive information on the history of oasts and the process of hop farming and harvesting from the 16th century onwards.
http://oastandhopkilnhistory.com/

For visitors to Kent who are interested in the history of hop growing, these are the best places to visit:

The Museum of Kent Life features the last working traditional oast in the country. They organise an annual hop festival where the crop is harvested and dried using traditional methods, and year round exhibitions explain the crop and its production. Details of their opening times and events can be found at http://www.museum-kentlife.co.uk, while more specific information on hops can be found at http://www.hoppingdowninkent.org.uk.

The Hop Farm Country Park includes the largest group of Victorian oast houses in the world. It is the former farm of the Whitbread brewery, and you can see extensive exhibits on hop production brewing and meet heavy horses. There are collections of vehicles and farm machinery and there is a range of special events throughout the year.
http://www.thehopfarm.co.uk

Shepherd Neame, the UK's oldest surviving brewer, is based at Faversham in Kent (which also holds an annual hop festival). Their website gives details of their brewery tours, their award winning range of beers and their pubs, which can be found throughout Kent.
http://www.shepherd-neame.co.uk

Oast


Richard Crowhurst is a freelance writer and author based in Lincolshire, England. He writes on many subjects, including history and heritage topics. More details can be found on his websites, http://www.freelance-writer-and-author.co.uk and http://www.enagri.info.
Article and photos © 2006 Richard Crowhurst
Bottom photo courtesy of Britainonview.com

 

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