Learning to string a hop garden is pretty straight forward once you learn the basic pattern and if you can knit this could be an advantage. Our mystery stringer this year is Rosie.
It is unusual for us to have a lady hop stringer but not for any sexist reason. On farms traditionally the men went to work and the women had the main responsibility of looking after the children.Women could not put in a full day’s work but when they went banding this was perfectly suited for flexible working. It enabled them to be in the fields within school hours.
So on this farm the men who worked here full time did the hop stringing and the women did the banding, each playing their part for the benefit of the whole – old fashion team work.
Now things are different, times have dramatically altered and there are no longer several men permanently working on the farm. For seasonal hop work we have help from family and friends, some friends from far afield.This year Rosie asked to come hop stringing. At first you need to concentrate but the picture below shows how to hold the string and goad perfectly to achieve the right tension.
The main difference? There were none other that the men put half-hitches on the top hooks to help hold the tension and Rosie as she was learning to string a hop garden put in twizzles! Identical yes but twizzles are self explanatory and I think more picturesque.
The hop gardens may be strungfor this year but banding continues.Who knows, maybe we will see a man banding one year? This Pathe news clip shows the stringing and banding competitions that used to be run.
Hop stringing has begun in the hop gardens which means the start of a new beer year for hop growers. The season starts with hop stringing and ends at hop picking when the crop is safely gathered and dried.
The hops in this area are mainly strung using ‘Umbrella Work’ but other growers will use ‘Worcester Work’. Which method is used
is determined by tradition and how the hop gardens were originally planted. For Umbrella Work each hop plant is 6’6” apart in the row, with each row also spaced the same 6’ 6” apart. Oddly that’s 2 metres but the 6’6” measurements were used long before England even thought about going metric. With Worcester work the hops hills are at 3’ spacing and this hop stringing method does not need banding in.
Because coir stretches slightly when damp, the balls of string are soaked overnight before being used. If the coir string was put on dry it would stretch when it rained, especially as the bines become heavier as they mature. That is just a practical point. Equipment required is minimal – a long bamboo cane called a goad (stringing monkey to some) and a bag to hold a ball of string with a wide strap to go over one shoulder. The strap can be padded across the shoulder for comfort. These bags are generally made using a hessian sack adapted accordingly as to what each stringer finds most comfortable. The string is tensioned as the string runs through the hands so gloves are also required.
Each stringer has a ‘cant’ or section to string. It is normally the men that have traditionally done this job. The stringer will first walk over the hops hills in his cant (or allocated area) first, pulling up any screw pegs which are bent over and replacing any that are missing. Once all the screw pegs are checked he is ready to start.
The string is threaded through the end of the goad and a simple loop tied in the end of the string to attach onto on the first hook on the wire work.
String is tied off at the end of each cant before the next area is started.
If a ball of string runs out the end is simply tied onto the start of the new ball and stringing continues as normal.
We have had some beautiful warm sunny days recently I wonder if this old folk lore will prove to be true?
“When the cat in February lies in the Sun,
She will again creep behind the stove in March.”
The first job of the hop growing year is hop stringing and banding-in, it is the true beginning of the growing season. Winter is usually when any wire-working renewal or repairs are conducted, but stringing which starts in late winter or very early spring in this area is one job that is nice to get done, dusted and out of the way before the weather warms and the main season for farm work starts. It is a job where heavy tractors aren’t needed on the land, hence it is perfect for when the ground is soft as only man power is required.
Stringing the hops is normally man’s work which goes hand in hand with banding-in which is generally ladies work. This is not for any chauvinistic reasons, it is just that it makes sense that as the men are stringing we ladies can do the banding-in. That way the job gets done efficiently and after all, we are all working towards the same end.
In fact the whole Pathe news clip series is a wonderful archive of days past. It is interesting that not much has changed in the growing of hops other that the amount of folk that were needed to get the crop hand picked at harvest back then. Thank you to the Pathe team for permission to allow me to include their links in my posts.
There are several different patterns for stringing and not all of the patterns require banding-in. The reason that it is necessary for the more upright ‘umbrella work’ style of stringing is simply to hold the strings back to stop them falling into the centre of the alleys. By banding-in the 4 strings on each hop hill, this forms a tunnel for a tractor to drive down each hop alley once the hops are full grown and more especially when they are heavy and wet.
Banding-in is an easy job, it’s not physically demanding and with a happy companion and a few shared interests to discuss, the days out-of-doors slip past pleasantly. Hands fly on automatic pilot – 1 half hitch, 3 alternating twists and a reef knot, move onto the next hill and repeat, it is a job that allows for easy conversation as you go along.
If you are on your own, wildlife seem unconcerned by a solitary figure moving slowly through the strings, you can then daydream or think, it’s repetitive nature is meditative. If bored with your own company you can always listen to a personal radio of course!
Those are the pleasant things about banding-in and as with most seasonal jobs on a farm while it may not need much brain power, or work which you may not like, but you can take heart in that it will not last for very long. Extra layers of clothing can be discarded if the sun comes out, but if it gets colder the layers of clothing rapidly go back on and at times we can end up resembling extras from a scene in a film set in deepest coldest Siberia.
Downside, well like all jobs it certainly has one and this one is chilly finger tips. Everything else can be covered with layers and you can keep warm, but if the strings are wet with dew or rain and especially on breezy days, finger tips quickly become painfully cold. Frosty strings in the morning are worse! Brr cups of hot drink are needed more for warming hands than for quenching thirst, but so far this year it has been a good one for toasty fingers.
It may seem like a ‘nothing much’ job but as with everything to do with growing hops every little insignificant piece is part of the larger jigsaw and the majority of it is hand work. There is something in nothing if you allow yourself to be interested and see the point of the end result.
The string used in hop gardens is coconut fibre made from the outer husks of coconuts, it is collected and spun in Sri Lanka It is hairy and coarse making it perfect for the bines to climb up in their rapid assent to the top of the wire-work. When banding-in we love to spot the occasional bright coloured threads caught in the twine. whilst we are working outdoors in the soft muted palette of an English countryside in winter, the bright primary colours of these threads look incongruous in this setting. These threads allude to women in their colourful saris spinning this twine in warmer Sri Lanka. It is nice to feel that connection, we are all doing a simple job but each is an essential part of the bigger picture.