Oast and Hop Kilns: A History by Patrick Grattan

The Dude & Arnette team were pleased to be asked to share some of our oast house knowledge with Patrick Grattan for his book Oast and Hop Kilns A History.

This wonderful book was released at the end of last year and is a must-read for anyone with an interest in oast houses – which if you are reading this blog is probably you!

 

What’s it about?

This book is the very first comprehensive account of the 400-year history of oasts and hop kilns in England. While we in Kent and Sussex know them as oast houses, in Herefordshire, Worcestershire, Surrey and Hampshire they were more commonly called hop kilns. Alongside a thorough retelling of the hop history of these three distinct regions of England, the book also takes a comparative look at hop drying buildings in Continental Europe and the USA.

oast houses being repaired   Kentish oast cowls

By the late 19th century there were a massive 8,000 oast houses dotted throughout the English countryside. Oast houses and hop kilns are a distinctive feature of our beautiful Kent countryside – and other hop growing areas – and their history is interwoven with the history of Kent. They have played a major role in shaping the area and making it the county we see today. In short, the history of oast houses is the history of Kent. 

Dude & Arnette oast house specialist
Image Source: Dude & Arnette

 

Patrick’s comprehensive research was gathered from surviving buildings, books, archives and local lore – and of course some expert advisors (if we do say so ourselves). 

The book contains 250 illustrations of oast houses and their machinery, including an illustration of Dude & Arnette’s workshop! The book also features some great images of oast houses and their surrounding landscapes.

 

Get 30% off the book

To get your hands on a copy head to Amazon, Blackwells and from Liverpool University Press  and don’t forget to use the code OASTS30 on Liverpool University Press to get your 30% off discount.

A brief history of Sussex’s oast houses

Hops have been grown in Sussex for around 500 years, meaning that oast houses have been a key feature of the Sussex landscape for half a millennia!

Our nation’s love of beer all started at Sussex’s Winchelsea harbour around the 1400s as the first recorded imports of hopped beer began arriving on British soil. This beer typically came from the Netherlands and Belgium and the flavourful imported beer gradually became the tipple of choice for many, not least because it lasted a lot longer and was often stronger than the local brew.

Hop growing soon took off across Sussex and Kent and the traditional English ale, which relied on herbs and spices to give it flavour, was mostly replaced by this new hopped beer. The demand for hopped beer only increased in the following centuries and by the 1700s London was regularly producing over a million barrels a year of the much-loved drink. Hop production in Sussex hit its peak during the 19th century, and records show that in 1835 a substantial 11,380 acres of Sussex countryside had been devoted to the growing of hops. And all that hop growing and subsequent drying would have meant a lot of oast house building!

Great Dixter in East Sussex offers visitors a taste of what a traditional working oast house would have felt like. Their renovated 500-year-old Great Barn and its adjoining oast houses offer a glimpse into the county’s past. The current oast house was built in the 1890s – sadly nothing remains of the original oast house – and the dates of the yearly hop drying seasons, from 1892 through to 1938, are still scrawled on the wooden joists.

The majority of oast houses in Sussex are scattered around the High Weald AONB. One of the best ways to explore the area is by bike. The Oasts and Orchards cycle route winds its way through the undulating East Sussex countryside and past the area’s famous oast houses. The bright white cowls are an impressive feature of the landscape and give you a good sense of what this area would have looked like when it was in its hop growing heyday.

Hop growing has declined in Sussex and many of the county’s original oast houses have been converted into homes, businesses and tourist attractions, but hop growing and brewing still remain a quintessential part of Sussex industry. In the past few years numerous microbreweries have popped up across the county and incredibly in 2005, a new hop was discovered growing wild in one of the county’s hedgerows – the aptly named Sussex.

 

Don’t miss our article on the history behind Kent’s oast houses too.

battle oast house sussex restoration

Interested in local traditions and heritage? So are we! 

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What is an oast cowl?

Oast cowls are the distinctive chimneys you can see crowning traditional (and modern) oast houses. Back in the day, they provided a source of ventilation (as part of the brewing process while hops dried) and protected the kiln from the temperamental British weather.

As fourth-generation oast cowl specialists, we hand-made and repair oast cowls to support the conservation of these iconic architectural features of British heritage.

oast cowl and oast houses dude and arnette

If you are interested in what is an oast house used for, our blog is packed with oast curiosities and maintenance recommendations.

 

Oast cowl designs

Oast cowls are as unique as their owners. You’ll find there are a number of different oast cowl styles across the UK and that in most cases, cowls are also decorated with a motif. To find out more about the meaning behind oast cowl motifs, please read our Oast Cowl Motifs: More Than Just Decorations blog post.

 

Wooden cowls and fibreglass cowls

As professional oast cowl refurbishers, the word fibreglass (or GRP) often gives us the chills. They rot easily, they develop fungi, and well, they are just not as durable as traditional timber cowls. We can help you refurbish them if you already have one, but we don’t recommend installing them new. Wooden cowls, on the other hand, offer a better long-term investment and with our perfected craft skills, you’ll always be in safe hands.

dude and arnette repairing oast cowls.  oast cowl motif

About Dude & Arnette

Since we started in 1937, Dude and Arnette have restored hundreds of cowls around the UK, including the famous Hop Farm Family Park in Kent, the world’s largest collection of Victorian oast houses. Today, the majority of our happy clientele are homeowners, and we know how much people love living in converted oast buildings. They remain a wonderful part of our British heritage – and we’re committed to making sure that they are here for generations to come.

Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter to see our crafty work in action.

History of Oast Cottage Laddingford

Here at Dude & Arnette we’re passionate about oast houses, from oast house maintenance to roof repairs, we’ve been in the business since 1937 and know a trick or two. But we don’t stop there. We’re also big advocates of preserving British heritage and sharing with you fragments of our country’s history through its oast houses.

On this blog post, our customer Mike Reader shares with us the fascinating history of the unusual oast cottage Laddingford. Let’s have a look…

An oast within an oast

Laddingford Oast Cottage is an unusual one. The original building, a small T shaped oast house with 2 square kilns and stowage, probably dates from the 17th century. It may represent one of the earliest purpose-built oast houses. Many of the early oast houses were created from existing barns with kilns added, but this building was designed and built as an oast house. The evidence for it being built as a unit is the distinctive brickwork and ragstone plinth around the T shape, neither of which are in the rest of the building. An indication of its age is given by the roof construction without a ridge plate and without the use of nails. The building is essentially an “oast within an oast”.

interior view of wooden beams

Additionally, there are 2 windows with simple vertical square-sectioned timber battens, they have no glass but had external shutters. These are possibly like those in Scot’s oast dated 1574.

wooden pivoted louvres

There were also wooden, horizontal pivoted louvres, controlled by a simple timber mechanism, for ventilation throughout the building. One of these still survives.

horizontal window louvres

At some point in the 18th century, a larger 3rd square kiln was added on the southern side to provide increased drying capacity.  The construction is not of such high quality and the roof has a ridge plate. There is evidence in the roof showing where the cowl was situated. A deposit of ash was found under the bricks in the centre of the floor, showing where the fire had been. The addition of another kiln led to a need for an increased cooling area so a small barn was dismantled and rebuilt on the western side of the building to provide an extension to the upper floor.

old Postcard of painting by A W Head produced around 1900
Postcard of painting by A W Head produced around 1900 showing cottage Laddingford on the right-hand side

In 1820 a small weather-boarded 2-bed cottage was built on the western side, next to the small barn.

The 1871 map of the area shows that the southern-most roundel had been built. This was probably to replace the large square southern kiln, whose cowl was removed from the roof.

Moving onto the 19th century, a fire affected both small square kilns. As a result, these kilns were no longer used and the roof was rebuilt without their cowls. The lost drying capacity was replaced by building a new brick roundel on the northeast corner. This is shown on the later 1897 map.

The building was bought by Walter Reader in 1912, as part of Mereworth Farm. It has remained in the Reader family since.

The oast was used to dry hops until 1935 after which all drying was carried out in the oast at Uptons Farm. The cowls on the roundels were removed in the 1940s having been damaged by a bomb falling nearby. They were replaced by Dude and Arnette in June 2020.

Oast cowl types: The story behind the styles

Oast houses have played a huge roll in shaping the history of Kent and Sussex and they have become a symbol of the counties they inhabit. These much-loved buildings are a familiar sight throughout the countryside, their iconic bright white sails rising up across the landscape.

But these beguiling buildings are more than just a pretty façade. For centuries, Kent’s famous beer industry depended on oast houses (read our article on how oast houses used to work) and as many great things in life, their cowls came in different size and shapes!

So… Are there different types of oast cowls?

While there was certainly no standard blueprint for an oast design, they mostly fall into two categories – the circle kiln and the square kiln. Even within these two basic oast cowl designs, there was a huge degree of artistic license used by builders – meaning that each oast house has its own truly unique design. Some oasts, like Great Dixter in East Sussex, ditched the rulebook entirely, combining both square and circle designs.

Square Kilns

The very first oasts were simply barns with a kiln added to them. Unsurprisingly these rudimentary attempts at an oast house were far from safe and the substantial fire risk of these soon led to the introduction of a purpose-built, external kiln.

These square kilns were the all-original oast design. The first ones measured about 15 feet across, but as oast houses grew in popularity, they also increased in size.

Square oast houses by Dude and Arnette

While roundel oasts eventually found favour in Sussex and Kent, the square design would remain a firm favourite of hop growers in Hampshire, Herefordshire and Worcester.

In the mid-20th century onwards, the square design shot to popularity again as a surge of innovations in oast designs took hold (likely encouraged by the 1850s abolition of brick tax). Farmers realised it was easier to install a roller in the square kilns, which meant that the delicate hops could be removed to the cooling room without workers trampling on them. The popular mod-con of motorised fans were also better suited to the square design.

Nowadays, square kilns provide the perfect shell for conversions – no round furniture required in these ones. In terms of construction, the square kiln oasts consist of four sides with ridges or hips going to each corner of the kiln. The straight edge design of these means that only square tiles are needed, not tapered ones, potentially making any oast cowl repairs a bit more straightforward.

Circle Kilns

The iconic round kiln is probably the most recognisable oast cowl type in Kent, and in fact, the majority of the oasts still in existence today are the circle kilns. It was originally thought that the round kilns would be more efficient at heat distribution and more cost-effective.

Round oast houses by Dude and Arnette

When it comes to restoration, the circle kilns pose some different challenges to that of the square kiln. The circular shape means that tapered tiles are needed to swing the square tiles around the structure and a lathe is used to hang the tiles on.

Whether you have a square kiln or a circular one, we can assist with all types of oast cowl repairs and maintenance. Have a look at all the ways in which we can help you.

What is an oast house?

A question we get asked from time to time is, what actually is an oast house?

For us, there couldn’t be a better symbol of Kent than an oast house. Their striking shape dots the countryside skyline, providing some Instagram worthy shots – but what exactly are they?

In a nutshell, an oast house or hop kiln is a building created to dry hops as part of the brewing process.

Oast houses or hop kilns have played a huge part in the agricultural history of both the county and the country. And, at the heart of their fascinating origins is one of the nation’s favourite tipples – beer!

Starting from the top, what are hops? Hops are the flowering clusters of a plant called Humulus Lupulus and they give beer its distinctive flavour and aroma. Like grapes in wine, hops come in different varieties, each with its own characteristic. For centuries, the garden of England produced hops on an industrial scale, bringing life and prosperity to the countryside – and building on mass the oast houses seen all over Kent.

Side note: If you want to know a bit more about Kent’s oast houses, please have a read at our previous blog post.

Ok, but what do hops have to do with oast houses?

After enjoying a long summer basking in the English sunshine (in theory), hops are harvested around September. But, before they can be popped into any brews, they need to be dried. That is where the oast houses come in.

When hops are picked, they have a moisture content of 80% – which is no good for brewing. However, after an oast house has worked its magic, the amount of moisture in them goes down to a tiny 6%.

oast house history

How did a traditional oast house work?

Sitting on the ground floor of the roundel was a furnace, halfway up the tower was a slatted ceiling covered by a horsehair cloth, then above that a cone-shaped roof, and at the very top a cowl.

First, the hops were placed across the slatted ceiling. The furnace was then lit, and as the heat rose through the slatted ceiling, moisture was removed from the plants. The excess steam rose through the conical roof and out through the cowl. Not only did the cowl act as a very effective vent it was also rotated by a wind vane, ensuring that air was always circulating throughout the roundel and that the hot air had a clear path out of the oast.

Henden Manor Oast Cowl image

After the hops were deemed to be dry, they were shovelled out and placed onto the barn floor to cool. Once ready to be packed, they were pressed into large jute bags and sent to market. Just like today, brewers would not just throw any old hop into their beer so, by law, each batch was labelled with the grower’s details. This ensured that the much-loved Kentish beer would never be compromised.

As the hop growing industry in Kent declined and imported hops fell into favour, the use of oast houses declined too. Now, many of these wonderfully clever contraptions have a new lease of life as beloved homes!

Dude & Arnette are the UK’s market leader for oast cowl manufacturing, restoration and repairs. We have been the go-to family business for oast house owners since 1937.

Sue & Les Hart - Cowl

Kent’s Oast history

Designed for the drying of hops, an oast (or oast house) is an essential part of Kent history. Kent was famed for its hop-growing, and the demand for somewhere safe to dry (kiln) the hops for the thirsty brewers was high.

How did an oast house work?

Green hops were picked in the hop gardens (for a set price per bushel), however when freshly picked they had a moisture content of 80% – this needed to be reduced all the way down to 6% to be any use for the all-important brewing.

Traditional Kent oast houses were two or three storeys high with diagonally slatted floors (stowage). Hops were strewn out across these thin drying floors and heated from below – the slats allowed the heat to gently rise through them decreasing the moisture content.

Topped by anywhere between one and eight circular kilns, the oast cowls that we so lovingly construct and restore provided ventilation for the hot air from the wood or charcoal fires below to escape. They were cleverly designed to swing away from the prevailing wind and therefore create a vacuum that kept hot air being drawn through the slatted floors above.

The hops were then left to cool before being bagged up into large jute sacks called ‘pockets’ with a hop press. Each pocket contained about 150 bushels of green hops! Most importantly, the pocket had to be marked with the grower’s details. The brewers at the market would want to know for certain, where their hops were coming from, as they were used in their breweries to add distinct flavour and character to the Kent beers we know and love.

A history respected

Starting our business in 1937 it’s no wonder we know these oast and oast cowls inside out. We are really proud of our part in maintaining this important part of Kent life. If you want to see a traditional oast house in Kent, one of the best preserved is The Hop Farm Country Park at Beltring. Famous for having the world’s largest collection of Victorian Oast Houses it has been our honour to work on this project.

If you have any questions about oast houses in Kent then get in touch.

All hail the Tally Man!

Not a phrase you hear often these days, but get ready ladies and gents as we’re taking things old skool, bringing back one of the ancient traditions of working Oast Houses.
The Tally stick is back.

Original Tally Man

 

If you’re not familiar with the term then let us enlighten you. In the early 1900s, a ‘Tally Man’ would visit the Oast Houses and note down the amount of hops they were picking and brewing, and mark this on a tally stick.

“The ‘tally man’ came round at intervals during the day, when the hops would be measured out by the tally and recorded for each family. They were then transferred to the oast house in huge ‘pokes’ known as ‘green bags’, each containing 12 bushels, by horse-drawn farm wagons. Pickers were paid by the bushel and an average pick would be 25 bushels a day. One shilling (5p) per bushel is the highest pay recorded and for many years it was only eight old pence.”

[source: Faversham Hop Festival]

At the end of the picking season he would then exchange the tally stick for tokens which could be redeemed by the grower for goods such as new clothes and boots. Designing elaborate hop tokens became something of a competition between hop growers, and they are much sought after by local museums.

The Tally Stick process was later replaced by hop picker books, but not ones to let a good tradition go, we at Dude and Arnette have crafted our very own tally sticks which we use to record services on the Oast Houses we restore and revamp on across the country. We then leave the stick with the Oast House owners and it serves as a handy reminder of when we last visited and reminds them, and whoever takes over the property to keep their cowls in top condition!

Dude & Arnette Tally stick

Our team are passionate about the history behind hops, and being in the business since 1937 it’s important to us to bring some of the old history back to life whenever we can! So next time you visit an Oast House, ask to see their Tally Stick – and if they don’t have one? Send them our way!

Our top 3 National Trust attractions with Oast Houses

All we want for Christmas is… a National Trust membership! Why? To visit our favourite historical oast houses of course…

The National Trust is truly a British institution and are outstanding at maintaining the estates they manage for the enjoyment of visitors. We’ve put together our top three destinations to visit that include an oast house on site, all of which are steeped in history and make for a great day (or overnight) visit!

 

Bateman’s

Jacobean house and home of Rudyard Kipling – Burwash, East Sussex

Famous for writing The Jungle Book and Just So Stories, Rudyard Kipling will always be one of Britain’s most revered Children’s authors. Rudyard lived at Bateman’s from 1902 to his death in 1936, and the property and its grounds were bequeathed to the The National Trust in 1939 following his wife, Catherine’s death. The estate features a well restored Jacobean house which has been kept the same as when the Kiplings lived there, a mill house and a brick-built double oast house which is grade II listed. We’d recommend visiting on an autumnal day when the leaves are turning golden, perhaps on ‘Apple Day’ which is held in October. Other events include a folklore and fairy tale trail which is perfect for budding bookworms.

 

Sissinghurst Castle Garden

Cranbrook, Kent

460 acres of stunning Wealden countryside encase the majestic Sissinghurst castle and its famous gardens. Vita Sackville-West, a poet and writer and her husband Harold Nicolson (a Diplomat) fell in love with the estate and made it their home in 1930. In the years that followed they worked tirelessly to create the spectacular gardens that now draw thousands of visitors to the estate each year and are looked after by The National Trust. The castle and its grounds also housed plenty of secrets during Vita and Harold’s marriage, including numerous same sex love affairs, most notably between Vita and Virginia Woolf. A fantastic place to visit, especially to see the large oast house which is part of the sprawling gardens.

 

The Oast House
Bromyard, Herefordshire

The Oast House is an 18th-century brick built house, located on the Brockhampton estate, with its former hop kilns and barns still in place. If you fancy taking a break in Herefordshire, then staying at The Oast House is the perfect place to get your history fix. Take time to explore the neighbouring towns and National Trust properties which include The Weir Garden in Hereford, and Croome, a secret wartime air base in Worcester. The Oast house boasts 6 bedrooms and sleeps up to 10 people, which makes it the perfect family base for a UK ‘staycation’.

Inspired by these beautiful oast houses? Why not view some of our latest work restoring these national treasures.

All images are from The National Trust Website

Delve into history and visit some of Kent’s famous Oast Houses

Driving through the Sussex and Kent countryside you’d be forgiven for wondering just what the funny looking conical roofs peeking from the old stone buildings were for! Even those who have grown up around them often will have a blank face when asked about Oast Houses, but to the keen historian, they play a big part in England’s heritage, with some of Kent’s famous Oast Houses dating back to the 15th Century.

So what on earth were they used for? You’ll like the answer we’re sure – brewing beer. Yes, that’s correct, we can thank these fine Oast Houses for playing a part in creating some of the most delicious ales ever to pass the lips of a thirsty, hardworking pub patron.

Oast Houses were traditionally used to dry out the hops equipped with a fiery kiln, a drying room and a cooling room. The conical kiln roof was topped with an oast cowl to create a draft that kept the fire alight and was fueled by wood until the 17th Century when charcoal took over.

Although arguably most famous in Kent, hop farming in Oast Houses occurred around the country, most noticeably in Worcestershire, Herefordshire and Gloucestershire, all of which grew and dried their own hops to turn into deliciously golden ales. Although most of these Oast Houses are now retired from their boozy brewing days, many are still open to the public to visit and learn more about their hop-filled history.

Fancy checking out a real-life Oast House? Of course you do! Here’s our guide to where to visit in Kent…

Hop House

Hop Farm Country Park, Tonbridge (Image via: www.geograph.org.uk)

Originally owned by the Whitbread brewery company, The Hop Farm in Kent operated as a fully working farm before opening its doors to the public and hosting family-friendly events throughout the year. Boasting the largest number of Victorian Oast Houses in the world the farm’s history spans five centuries and was a popular holiday destination of Victorian families who would ‘hop down’ to Kent to take part in the 6-week harvesting each summer. Well worth a visit – check out their website for event listings, ranging from concerts to firework displays.

 

shephard

Shepherd Neame, Faversham (Image via: kentattractions.co.uk)

Recognise the name? Well, you’ve been outed as a seasoned beer drinker then! Shepherd Neame is the Uk’s oldest brewer and has been based in Faversham, Kent since 1698. You might have heard of some of their brews which include Spitfire, Bishops Finger (oo err) and Master Brewas. Water from the artesian well deep beneath the brewery is used as one of the main ingredients to this day and the brewery runs tours so that you can learn more about what it takes to make traditional British ale…

 

kentlife

Kent Life, Maidstone (Image via: www.kentlife.org.uk)

Celebrating all things traditional, Kent Life has the last working coal-fired Oast in Britain. You can visit the Oast as part of their farm tour, and when you do – take a look at the material as it is made from rag stone, a traditional Kentish material which is rare to find. For those who are fond of the fluff, hang around the cuddle corner and you may just get the chance to get hands on with some of the animals, perhaps even their newest additions – alpacas!

 

oast house stacation
(Image via: www.staycationholidays.co.uk)

Get the real experience…

And if you want to try something really special, why not book an overnight stay in a traditional Oast House? And whilst you’re at it, pop along to the local boozer to try a pint of their finest local brew – cheers!

 

We’re proud to have worked on some of Kent’s famous Oast Houses, visit our gallery to see more or get in touch to find out how we can help you with your property.