HOPPING DOWN IN KENT

For a start, you had to have a hopping box. Every family in our street had one. Ours was a couple of wooden tea chests knocked together and mounted on pram wheels, with a pair of broom handles along the top of the box for pushing and pulling all the way to London Bridge.

            We kept it under the larder shelf beside the big bag of spuds. As the early summer weeks went by, Mum lowly began to stock one half of the chest with odd cans and dried packs of food from the top shelf of the kitchen cabinet. We had no fridges then. Processed marrowfat garden peas one week,  a brighter green than you ever saw in a pod, corned beef  from Argentina in a second, dried apricots or figs in a third, maybe a treat can in a fourth if Dad got lucky with some badly dented ones down the Docks -  stewed steak,  even salmon a couple of times.  "Who dented them, that's what I’d like to know," said Mum darkly, but Dad rubbed the side of his nose and winked. And best of all for the younger ones, the big sweetie jar level went oh so slowly but thrillingly up and up with every week that passed.

            Into the other half of the chest went any clothes with wear left in them for hopping, but too scruffy for school - a jersey with too much elbow hole to be darned any more, a pair of short trousers ripped on the park railings and crudely patched, but handy enough for picking in. Last year’s oil lamp and the metal pots, pans and plates all lay in the bottom, until the day the hopping letter slipped in through the letter box.

            "George! George! Hopping letter’s come!" Mum beside herself in the hall, waving the letter in the air. Kids cheering, but just a grunt from the kitchen where Dad was shaving. He didn’t come hopping with us so it never meant as much to him. But to Mum, who had spent the last three weeks anxiously asking Doreen Hawkins from number 27, and Ma Patterson in Hathaway Street, and cross-examining Postman Sid in between, if any hopping letters had arrived yet, it meant we were wanted again.

            The letter would pass round the kitchen, closely examined by all of us: me, Margaret, my younger sisters, Lorna and Josie, and my little brother Jack.  Mr Parker, the hop farmer down in Kent, was asking us back for five weeks picking to the end of September. Our hut and bin numbers were the same as last year. "Concessionary railway fares" would be "applicable" and the tickets would be sent "forthwith". 

            Now those pots and pans and metal plates would come out from the bottom of the hopping box, together with the oil lamp which would need a wick trimming. Everything would be polished until it shone, although it would all be black and dull after the first week of cooking on open fires. There was a little primus stove for tea in the hut, but no room for toys. Lorna and I were considered too old. Josie was allowed her Shirley Temple doll and Jack never let go of his old leather football from one hour to the next. He slept with it on the pillow beside him. I chalked a fierce face on it when he was even tinier and he woke up with a scream of terror that frightened the life out of all of us.

            And so the high summer weeks limped past in the grim, tall tenements and the narrow back-to-back terraces. It was hot and smelly from the nearby tannery on humid August afternoons and evenings when the bugs bit you. There wasn’t even a school yard to play in once the holidays had started. Our terraced house had no back area and the front doors opened on to the street where the boys played marbles and football and cricket and we had to settle for hopscotch and handstands. My sisters and I and my best friend Sarah used to perform film scenes and our own plays in an open window for a crowd of little ones. You could always get an audience in our street. There were even faces looking down at us from Giles Buildings, the tenements opposite.

            If the weather broke, a thunderstorm, with all the excitement of its jagged fork lightning and rumbling thunder echoing round the tenements, was often followed by the relief of incessant, cool,  splashing rain. But this meant we were squashed back into our tiny two-up, two-down terraced house.  Jack would be clodhopping up the stairs to his half of our parents’ bedroom to look through his old comics, while Lorna and Josie played in the back bedroom, shared by us three girls, with the big dolls house Dad made out of old packing cases. His thick docker’s fingers were surprisingly dainty when it came to making little pieces of furniture for their rooms.

            I would use the best front room if Mum had work at the corner shop or the tannery. I used to have imaginary tea parties, sometimes cocktail evenings, with all the exciting people I could think of - film and stage stars, radio names, sometimes a teacher I had a crush on, and maybe a girl I didn’t like whom I could wither with my devastating repartee over a dry Martini.

            And then when we were bored with being indoors in the dark, stuffy atmosphere, we would all squash into the kitchen at the same time, remembering Mum saying "If you get bored, you can clean up the stuff in the hopping box." We would take out the pots and the pans and polish them again and admire the less familiar labels on the tins. One year Dad "came by" a little tin of caviar at the Docks and that was the biggest disappointment in our lives, I can tell you. But everything in the hopping box told us to look forward to the weeks that lay ahead down in Kent.

            Dad used to tease us. "Well, I’m glad I’m not coming!" he used to say. "Squashed up in a twelve by ten shack with you lot by night and picking all day!  I tell you, it makes the Docks feel like a picnic!"

            And Mum used to get angry. "Stop it, George!" she would scold him. "They look forward to it all year and so do I. Green fields and hedges, open spaces and fresh air. The stink of that tannery gets in my nose and throat night and day. It’s all forgotten by the first hour down in Kent."

            Dad would sniff. "I’m not that mad about the smell of hops if it comes to that."

            "You don’t mind the taste of them, though," Mum would say and we would cheer and laugh and he would pretend to sulk and go out, but only to the kitchen. Then he would make her a cup of tea, kiss the top of her head and say "I don’t know how I’m going to manage without my family." I would play a pretend violin, wail a soulful tune and we would all laugh again. They were happy days as hopping drew near.

            Mind you, others would have agreed with Dad. A few rough weeks in some fields forty miles away hardly sounds like a holiday, but getting away from the dirt and noise and boredom of life in the rough, tough London we knew was magical.

            When the family rail ticket finally arrived, the excitement became even more intense. Everyone kept their rail ticket behind the big clock on the mantelpiece. Jack examined ours twenty times a day. Our one and only return train journey of the year was less than a week away. We would check with all our friends - and enemies - from school and the streets around to see who was going and who was condemned to the rest of the summer in the buildings. Sometimes a mum was just about to have another baby and the family couldn’t go, although grandmas generally offered their services if they were up to it. "And if we find you played Nana up, your dad will take his belt to you." Sometimes a family had been caught scrumping fruit on a greedy scale, or making trouble the previous summer and, worst disgrace of all, were not sent their hopping letter.

            But pretty well everyone you knew, the whole street and the next one, was getting ready with final preparations. In with the wellies, the freshly-washed, and most worn, bedclothes, tea, sugar, an old enamel washing up bowl. "Mum, there’s no more room in the hopping box," but Mum could miraculously always repack it and make room.

            "We’ll never get the bag of spuds in, Mum."

            "We don’t need to take spuds. Coals to Newcastle, that is."

            "But will we have to buy spuds, Mum?"

            "Never you mind. There will be spuds, my darling." Very mysterious.

            And when the hopping box really was full and there was no room left for the most threadbare pair of underpants or Josie’s favourite blouse, then the flimsy, half-cardboard cases would come out from under the big bed and Mum would do the final clothes packing, with a few small toys squeezed in here and there. And we were ready.