The hop harvest has got underway in the Teme Valley in Worcestershire and I have just visited a friend’s farm to watch the hop bines being brought from the hop yards to the picking shed. The long hop bines, laden with a healthy crop of cones, have come from fertile land by the river where they have not been adversely affected by the summer’s drought. A new drying system has been installed this year to replace the traditional hop kilns and I watched whilst the 50 year old Bruff hop picking machine thundered it way through the afternoon like a huge monster eager to devour anything fed to it.
Then there was the sheer physical nature of working there. People moving urgently about unloading trailers, untangling the long bines, attaching them to the trackway, clearing blockages, keeping conveyor belts moving smoothly…. for about eight hours a day for the next three weeks. The noise was loud and you had to shout to be heard - it was like being in a tin shack during a very heavy hailstorm! The side of the machine shed resembled a large workshop implying that keeping the whole setup running was a challenge in itself. Actually, the new drying system seemed to be having more teething problems than the vintage picking machine. Once the day’s work had finished and all the floors swept clean of hops, the mechanical leviathan was shut down and everyone, including me, went for a drink at the bar. This had been built in one of the two long brick arched cellars beneath the house and these opened out onto a newly built patio/function area overlooking the river. A cool refreshing pint of draught cider was most welcome. If I could I’d easily give up sitting in front of a computer for a month to help out here.
Once the hop harvest is finished there won’t be much time before the cider apple harvest begins. Farming is not a job here, it is a way of life and a very physically demanding one at that.
Around Hanley Childe the corn harvest has just finished and the fields are dotted with round bales awaiting collection. Several distant combines could be heard and I walked through one field of spring barley still to be harvested. A tractor and a huge trailed muck spreader were seen at work on one of the fields.
Fruit trees abound everywhere here though not all the fruit is edible. Many of the tress are very ancient and haven’t been managed to produce edible fruit for decades. Pear, apple and damson trees pop up everywhere in fields, hedgerows and woodland. Several very fruitful damson trees were relieved of their heavy burden. I haven’t had damson fool since I was a child and it was a joy to go home, cook the fruit, sieve the pulp and add cream. Absolutely delicious.
Slightly surprisingly, so I thought, I have only found one place where a wild hop was growing. It had climbed a good 12 feet or so up into a heavily berried hawthorn hedge beside an old orchard.
The neatly mown cider orchards are laden with fruit from many different varieties. As cider apples are small and not really edible I wasn’t sure if the drought had affected them. The trees looked quite heavily laden and will be mechanically harvested later in the autumn.
Berries in hedgerows: rose-hips, blackberries, bryony, hawthorn, elder, some wild arum, sloe and a few others to be identified.
Most wild flowers have gone over, but a few surprises were found like water mint on an old ford and a single purple violet in some woodland. Was it late or early?
Butterflies: whites, red admiral, blue, skipper, speckled wood, meadow brown, small copper.
Dragonflies common, frequently seen anywhere.
Birds: birdsong quiet or non-existent compared to earlier in the year: buzzard, green woodpecker, wren, heron, magpie, jay, pigeon, pheasant, small tweeting things, heron and various other unidentifiables.
Animals: sheep, cow, horse, squirrel, muntjac deer, rabbit, mouse, no hares this time.
Most of the hedgerow verge plants have died or are on their way out: nettles, docks, grasses, hogweed, greater willowherb, goosegrass, woundwort. Bryony berries are spectacular with their trails of brightly coloured berries and leaves adorning hedges and blackberries in abundance in places.
No sign of ash die back disease here, ash trees are everywhere and fully laden with bunches of keys. Found a few limes and a few other interesting trees such as maple and sweet chestnut.There always seems to be something of interest to discover. I did find a few fungi though I think it was a little too early in the year to have a successful fungal foray.
I might as well be doing a complete ecological survey of the area. Whilst waiting the water to boil on my gas stove for a cup of coffee I found two new trees I needed to identify near to where I had parked. Not sure if all this detail will be relevant for my book, I am just trying to get to know the area so that at least I can write about it with some background knowledge.
Only a few trees are showing any immediate sign of turning colour. Most are still a deep summer green. It is the fruits, seeds and berries that give the hint that autumn is close. The brown, dry pastures have recovered significantly from the drought with most grassland turning back to green. The soil feels moist though it will take time for the cracks in the clay to disappear.
It is 8.34pm, very nearly dark and a farmer is still muck spreading - he started late afternoon. Wonder what he did the rest of the day and why this job is so important now? Perhaps he needs to sow another crop and working with tractors on the clay soil now is easier than if it rains. Moving over the fields with heavy equipment will not be possible then. On second thoughts it may well be a contractor at work, or a farmer doing contract work for a neighbour. The countryside is full of busy people at this time of the year and I didn’t really want to interrupt their work by asking questions.