Today is the birthday of English poet, novelist, and garden designer Vita Sackville-West. “She was a successful novelist, poet, and journalist, as well as a prolific letter writer and diarist. She published more than a dozen collections of poetry during her lifetime and 13 novels. She was twice awarded the Hawthornden Prize for Imaginative Literature: in 1927 for her pastoral epic, The Land, and in 1933 for her Collected Poems. She was the inspiration for the androgynous protagonist of Orlando: A Biography, by her famous friend and lover, Virginia Woolf.”
She wrote seventeen novels and a dozen collections of poetry, along with several biographies and works of non-fiction. But she was also well-known for her garden at Sissinghurst created with her husband, Sir Harold Nicolson. It was located in the Weald of Kent in
The Kentish Landscape
At the moment of writing these words, Kent is looking absurdly like itself. Cherry, plum, pear, and thorn whiten the orchards and the hedgerows; lambs frolic; the banks are full of violets and primroses; the whole landscape displays itself as an epitome of everything fresh and innocent which has drawn ridicule upon the so-called school of Georgian poets. It is a simple delight which pleases everyone, from the unsophisticated to the sophisticated. Why affect to despise it? Year after year I enjoy it more, and reflect with pride that my own county offers a fair presentment of the English scene to the foreigner travelling in his Pullman between Dover and London.
He, of course, cannot know it as we know it, though on his way up to London he is accorded a generous glimpse of the valleys of the Beult and the Medway. He sees the orchards and the hop-gardens; orchards he has seen before in his own Normandy, but the hop-gardens strike him as very peculiar and individual, opening and shutting as they do while the train flashes past. If he does not already know what they are, he is reduced to asking an obliging stranger for the explanation. Those tall bare poles, that elaborately knotted string, those ploughed acres—what does it all mean? The explanation is forthcoming: it is English beer. Of course: this is Kent. He looks out again with renewed interest, he remembers that this is called the garden of England.
I went on such an expedition recently with two friends. We did not find much, it is true; or, rather, we found none of the real rarities. That, however, never matters, for the compensations are so rich: the small, lost, down-land churches, miles from the villages they are supposed to serve; the wide windy skies, the grassy slopes, the deep valleys with farm-buildings exquisitely composed into the group of barns, house, and oasts with steep brown roofs. I heard someone say the other day that when he saw or read about such things, nothing else seemed to matter, neither European complications, nor wars, nor threats of wars—they were all forgotten. I felt the same myself, when eventually we found the Bee orchis growing beside a partridge’s nest.
The Hop-picking Season
The hoppers are arriving in Kent. It is curious to observe that the moment the East-ender leaves his slum in Bermondsey or Rotherhithe for this annual expedition, he starts to cut quite a different figure in the public mind, ceases to be a mere and rather vulgar Cockney, and is instantly invested with all the attributes of romance. For three weeks in his drab
yearhe is allowed to rank in picturesqueness with the gipsy. Why this should be so is a little difficult to explain. He dresses in the same way as he does in London, yet there is a difference between the Cockney and the hopper; perhaps the red handkerchief knotted roundthe throat looks better in a field than in the slum. The tawdry muslins of his women make a bright and oddly foreign effect among the bines. The presence of many children turns the serious business of picking into something like a pagan festival, reminding me of the Neopolitan celebration when the local little boys spray their naked sunburnt bodies with the copper-sulphateused for the prevention of Phylloxera and prance about stained in turquoise blue between the olives and the vines at dawn, a scene which Leonardo might have found it in his taste to record in paint. The Londoners’ children are neither so gay nor so pagan, but stilla certain light-heartedness descends on all. It is very un-English in spite of being so essentially English. The hop-garden is a fair substitute for the vineyard, with its swags of green bunches so like the white muscat, its long leafy tunnels dappled with light, its brown canvas troughs filled with the pale flowers. Colour and gaiety reign in a way they never do at the other great country events such as hay-making or harvest . This gaiety is reflected also in the trouble that the Cockney family takes to make its temporary home as lively as possible. The sleeping quarters provided are usually no better than a range of wooden huts—sometimes even an old railway coach—lime-washed inside, and supplied with a wooden bench and a couple of trusses of straw for bedding. Nothing more. It is all very clean, bare, and hard. Little can be said for it save that it is clean and (one hopes) weather-proof. Fortunatelythe families who have descended yearly upon the same hop-garden for several generations, grandmother, mother, and child, know exactly what to bring with them in order to turn the hut into a home. They bring colouredlithographs and lace curtains; bedspreads and china ornaments, and by the time they have set out their treasures their little hovel looks as attractive as a Dutch interior. Then when the working day is over they gather roundbonfires and rouse the quiet night with songs and piano-accordions.
In damp sunless
weatherthe picture is different. We remember then that perhaps thanks to our climate we are a glum race. A peddler comes round crying mackerel at five a shilling; alive they were, and swimming, this morning at sunrise, for the sea is not so very far away, but now the dead protruding eyes of fish stareat the pickers over the edge of the basket; this has to do duty for song and sunburnt mirth. The pickers then contribute nothing of jollity. Sordid, pasty bundles, sitting on camp stools or wooden boxes, their muslins hiddenaway beneath their mackintoshes, their babies uncomfortably asleep in go-carts beside them, they strip the bines in gloomy silence, preoccupied solely with the completion of their tally. A tally to a family; a big thing to fill, and only 1s. 5d. when you have done it. No wonder they are sometimes gloomy, especially when it rains. The grape is a fruit, the hop only a flower; perhaps that makes all the difference.
It appears also that they do not wholly like being in the country. So long as the weather is fine they make the best of it, regarding it as a holiday to be enjoyed, almost an obligation, but then as day dies a certain alarm disquiets their souls. Away from traffic and street lights, they are frightened. The silence and the darkness of the fields
perplexesthem. They will not go about after dusk except in little bands. Toughs though they may be at home, they are not tough enough to stand the desolation of the darkened country-side. On the wholethey feel rather relieved when the moment comes for them to climb into their charabancs or cars again and return to a mode of life they understand.
Perhaps, however, they will not much longer be called upon to add their picturesque touch to the country year. The bines, it is said, will soon be stripped by machinery. Oh, brave new world!
The Garden and the Oast
It is the annual outing of the East End, but the East End cannot be expected to take any affectionate interest in our peculiarly local crops. These acres, representing several thousands of pounds, tended all the year by expert, almost instinctive, country hands, from the first training of the bine to the last fingering of the swollen flower, are turned over in the height of their fulfilment to the unskilled, unsympathetic mercies of the Cockney. Consider for a moment the care and vigilance which throughout the months of winter, spring, and summer have brought the gardens to their autumn state of fecundity. First, after the harvesting, the old bines must be cleared away; then the pruning-knife must sever and select; then, with the shooting of the new bine, up go the strings—strings reckoned by the ton; six hundred miles of string, fixed to the ground at the bottom by women and boys, and to the permanent wires overhead by men on stilts, giant figures stalking between the poles in the bleak spring day. The bine begins to grow; heavily fed, it will grow as much as two feet in a night, twining round the strings from right to left, for the hop cannot be persuaded to grow widdershins. You may think that a plant with so much energy might now be left for a little to its own devices. Make no such mistake. It has its enemies: mould and insects; it has its remedies: wash and powder; the enemy must be looked for, and the remedy applied unsparingly, even though the men with knapsacks blow hundreds of pounds sterling in fine sulphur dust into the air. The wind, too—a proper gale will do grand damage in the hop-garden. But the garden survives these dangers, and towards the end of August you are rewarded by the pale, imponderable clusters, well grown out, as you walk down the green, lovely aisles or mount your fixed ladders for a final inspection. It is then, when your expert judgment decides that the flower is ripe for picking, that London lets loose its hordes and the garden is profaned by the presence of these philistines, and the fish-peddler cries his mackerel at five a shilling.
The profanation, however, marks but a brief stage in the history of the hop from bine to bottle. At the sole moment of its picking is the hop subjected to the hands that neither love, hate, nor understand it. Once picked into the pokes, when the garden begins to assume a dirty, dejected air, with the cut bines withering in their fallen heaps, the poles sticking up gaunt and useless, the wires overhead fluffy with the fringe of cut strings—once picked, the flower is hurried to the oasts, where skilled driers receive it. These are men who have been for thirty, forty, fifty years at their job. They handle their material and their implements as though they knew what they were about. Indeed, they disregard some of their implements, with a sort of contempt, such as the thermometer and the weighing-machine, referring to them only as a concession to convention, to corroborate their human judgment, or to satisfy the overseer, when their instinct is rarely proved at fault. This is pleasing, and as it should be. The hop is once more in hands that have the mastery over it.
All day the chimneys of the kilns have been smoking blue, but the life of the kiln does not slacken with dusk, when the pickers go home to their camp; all night the process of drying goes on, to keep pace with the supply that has been pouring in from the garden. Inside the oast, we choke and cough with the sulphur; the doors of the furnaces stand open for a fresh stoking, like the entrails of a ship, the pan of sulphur blue in the midst of the fire; the men, demoniacal figures redly lit, shovel on the coal, slam the doors, throw down their shovels with horrible clang; this ground-level of the oast is a place of violence. Propped against the wall, too, are brutal shapes, sacks as big as bullocks, with the white horse of Kent prancing painted across them, and their corners tied into ears like the ears of killed beasts.
But on the upper story the hop reassumes its character of pale colour and feather weight. In the long, low, raftered loft, where everything is whitewashed, the lanterns swing from the beams above mountains of dried flowers on the floor, billowing heaps of a ghostly pallor, an exquisite imponderability. Impossible to give a name to their colour. It is a cross between ash and gold; the colour of dust-motes, of corn in moonlight, of fair hair under a lamp. All the green has been taken from them in the drying; they are crisp and airy; everything you touch is sticky with resin, even the bristles of the brooms are knobby with resin gathered in sweeping up the floor; the pungent smell is in the air. The lanterns throw the shadows of the rafters in sharp designs on roof and floor. The men, dressed in white overalls, pile the heaps higher with rake and scupper—huge scoops made of white canvas. In one corner, where a hole gapes in the boards, two men shovel the hops down the hole into the mouth of the sack which hangs below, out of sight; a great wheel spins round, the shadow of its spokes whirling over the whitewashed wall, and the weight descends into the sack, pressing, packing, till the flowers are squeezed into solidity, and one believes at last what had always seemed so unconvincing, that a ton of feathers weighs as much as a ton of lead.
This is all activity; but the hops at their drying are quiet and private. Doors along one side of the loft open on to the upper chambers of the kilns, white, circular, the roof rising to a point. The hops are spread knee-deep upon the floor. They are green still, and a faint blue smoke rises through them. It is very quiet in there, with a quality of solitude and vigil; very warm too, and heavily scented, inside the circular oast. The drier steps into the sea of hops, and slouches through them, kicking them up. Especially on the outside edges is it necessary to see that they shall be evenly dried; so he slouches round the wall, an old man in white corduroys, travelling against the white wall, stealthily as it seems, kicking up the pale green sea that faintly rustles, disturbing the smoke into little wreaths and eddies. There is a medieval flavour about it: the round chamber, the roof pointed like a witch’s hat, the white and green, the warmth, the smoke, the ancient man, the smell that creeps so soporifically over the senses. Out in the yard, as you come away, the shafts of the waggons stick up at the stars, and the cowled chimneys point in a blacker darkness at the darkness of the sky. To the left lies the ruined garden, with aisles of bare poles waiting for next year’s bine. You stumble down the lane, and at the corner turn to throw a glance at the group of kilns. A light appears in a little window, high up. You know then that the old drier has taken his lantern into the oast, and is slouching the hops, round and round the wall, in that furtive way, a mysterious rite, while in the loft the weight sinks rhythmically into the filling sack, and the overseer scribbles another ton upon his slate. There is no sleep for the men, and to-morrow the carts will come creaking up the lane with new loads from the gardens.
The history of the hop is not uninteresting. Guinness is good for you; but in the reign of Henry VI popular opinion took a different view, and the hop was condemned as ‘a wicked weed’. By the time of Henry VIII the wicked weed had attained quite another status, having been officially introduced from Flanders for cultivation in Kent and two or three other counties. Even so, Henry VIII ruled that the brewer should not put any hops into the ale, since this addition would ‘dry up the body and increase melancholy’. This ruling of an autocratic King did not prevent an irreverent subject of the Crown from writing, perhaps rather inaccurately,
Hops, Reformation, Bays, and Beer
Came into England all in one year.
The overwhelming proportion of those hops which came into England, never to depart, is grown in
Kent,and has had its effect upon the landscape of the county in those characteristicpointed oast-houses, with their white vanes swinging to the wind. Most people must be strangely incurious. Nearly everybody must surely have seen oasts dozens of time, if only from the window of a train, yet if one lives near a group of them one is constantly asked what ‘those odd-looking buildings’ are for. During the first weeks of September, anyone can see for himself what they are for. He can climb up into the upper loft and glance into the round turret where the deep green carpet of cones is spread drying in the hot fumes. He can watch the men shovellingthe dried heaps through a hole in the floor, packing them tightly into the great sacks called pockets in which they are to be driven away to the brewer—the last stage in the endlessly complicated process of the hop-grower’syear.
The pickers have nearly finished their job and will be leaving us at the end of this week. No longer shall we see the red light of their fires burning in the distance, nor, on a Saturday night, shall I be able to walk down to their huts, sit with them round the brushwood fire, and listen to their jokes and their songs. It is a scene which, with a difference, always carries me back to a ranch in California, where under the shelter of a great rock the cowboys would light their bonfire and sit round chanting endless sagas of the trail. There is no great rock here, and the stars are less enormous, but even in the lameness of my own familiar fields the sole illumination of the flames casts a wild beauty over the rough faces and the coloured scarves. The doors of the huts stand open, a little oil-lamp revealing each miniature interior; the head of a sleepy child droops suddenly; an armful of fresh brushwood makes the embers flare; the plaintive notes of the accordion continue to rise and fall. It is nearly two o’clock in the morning; the jokes, the dancing, and the ribald songs have ceased; they have stopped dancing the Lambeth Walk; the songs are all sentimental now—eternal Sehnsucht and eternal pain.
I shall miss the hoppers.