This week’s portfolio session features the lovely photographer Thom Atkinson. Albam Clothing in Upper Street are currently playing host to his Hoppers and Pickers exhibition so we decided to hand over to Thom to take us through this beautiful exhibition. Shot in Kent last year and celebrating the traditions and craft of the english harvest, below Thom explains the story behind the images.
Bullen Farm, on Bullen Lane, in the Low Weald of Kent, has harvested hops and apples for four generations. The farmer, Mr Wheeler, is in his nineties now, but he still oversees his sons Chris and Nigel during harvest time. The harvest begins in late August and ends some time in mid October. It used to last much longer but the orchards and hop gardens are smaller than they once were. There are very few such farms left.
Before the last war, when hop picking was done by hand, many thousands of Londoners would arrive in Kent to work the harvest. Whole families would travel out to the hop farms and orchards for a working holiday. Gypsies, tramps and other itinerants would travel between farms looking for work too. A mile away, toward the next village, is the hop farm George Orwell wrote about in his first book. At Bullen Farm, only Charlie, a long time hopper in his mid seventies, can remember.
As time went by, Kent’s hop farms and orchards declined. The Londoners stopped coming, but the work was still taken by gypsies and other travellers. Then in the ‘90s, a group of New Age travellers found work on the farm. It seemed that no-one else would let them stay, but Chris took them in and eventually they settled there. Their caravans have been abandoned around and about the place but Lee still lives in his. Spen, Sue and Matt now run the farm all year round, in charge of planting and nurturing the bines and trees.
In August the hoppers and pickers arrive. Some, like Charlie and Bob, are English, but most are young Czechs with plans to earn money for their university fees. As in the past, the farmer provides them with simple accommodation and pays them piece-work wages. A good picker can earn £80 a day. For some it is their first time at the farm, but others have been here before. The work is hard but the atmosphere is one of happiness. I was made to feel welcome in their home.
As the harvest ends, the air of the Low Weald smells sweetly of apples, rotting on the ground. Mr Wheeler says the hops and apples don’t pay much any more. When the creaky old hop frames fall down he won’t replace them. But the farm seems to keep going - the old tractors and the hop picking machine have been running since the 1950s. The Czech workers joke that it is like a museum.
Thom Atkinson is represented by Black Dog Represents. An exhibition of Hoppers and Pickers is currently showing at Albam Clothing Store in Upper Street.