October 31, 2010

Sutton house

To Sutton House for a wedding yesterday, a beautiful sixteenth-century brick-built Tudor house right in the middle of Hackney. Inside it's all wood panelling and the remnants of ancient, decorated plasterwork; there's a lovely courtyard, too, swagged with vines, the small, dark grapes catching the clear autumn light against the warm stone. We went exploring, and found ourselves in a dank, vaulted cellar; "It looked wonderful with all the hops hanging in it," said an NT guide, appearing out of nowhere, as they do.
For centuries hops were grown all over this country; every kitchen garden would have a set of hop-poles to train the plants up, and farmers devoted large portions of their land to what was then a very lucrative crop. Hops are what make beer different from ale; they allow it to be preserved for longer, and thus transported further; allowing, effectively, for a viable brewing industry. Kent, in particular, was famous for its hop fields, and many people migrated to the fields from urban areas for September's harvest. In fact, during the hop gardens’ peak in the mid to late 19th century, over 80,000 men, women and children travelled to Kent every year to work as hoppers. 
Once picked, the hops needed to be dried. In Kent this took place in oast-houses, designed to maximise the throughflow of air. Then they needed to be stored somewhere cool and dark - for instance the cellar at Sutton House, which is still dressed with bunches of hops each September.