Oast Cowl Motifs: More Than Just Decorations

A cowl is an oast house’s crowning glory. But did you know that fitted to the kiln roof, cowls allowed the hot air to be drawn up through the hops and out through the roof? As they rotated in the wind, hot air was given the clearest escape path and the hops were kept safe from the infamous English rain. PS: If you want to read more about what is an oast house we tell you all, about it here.

A quick look up at the cowls might give you a clue as to where in the country you are though.

While Kentish cowls tend to have a flat cap, cowls in neighbouring Sussex have additional blinkers attached. Oast cowls within Herefordshire and Worcestershire follow a very different style with a pointed top and no cap. But, don’t ditch the map and compass. These rules are not set in stone and all styles have been known to travel beyond their home counties. To help the cowl do its important job and turn in the wind, a distinctive finger, fitted to the centre post and attached to the backboard, juts out from the cowl. It is on these that many owners place a delightful oast cowl decoration – a motif.

Duck motifs

These charming motifs are often more than just an aesthetic addition, they tell a tale of the history and heritage of their county. The original farmers who used the oast houses began adding these as a kind of brand identity for their farm. Hop picking season was short and most farmers would have had various sources of income, and a clue to their other activities can often be found in the oast cowl decorations.

Common motif designs range from horses, cockerels, hunters and pheasants, ducks, swans, deer and fish to relatively modern agricultural symbols like tractors. Many other historical moments are also celebrated through the motifs; one oast house features a motif of Winston Churchill on one cowl then a spitfire on the other.

The motifs also reveal the county’s history. The most popular motif is that of the horse, and the popular Invicta horse is an important symbol in Kentish heritage. The emblem exults the fact that during the invasion of Britain, William of Normandy was unable to subdue the county and so Kent negotiated favourable terms for itself. But this celebration of British heritage and culture has travelled into the modern-day. While some oasts still defer to their original owners for their motifs, as part of the oast house restoration, many owners decide to stamp their own family traditions on their oast cowls.

Malcolms brand new Cat Cowl

It has been a while since the majority of oast houses have been used to dry hops, but they have certainly not outgrown their use as a business premise. Many oast cowls are now fitted with motifs that represent their new business owners, with company logos adorning the cowls, showing that these beautiful buildings still have a place in Kentish life.

Detail of oast cowl motifs

Fancy giving your oast cowl that extra pizzazz? Our experts can craft and fit new support arms, arms, motifs and fingers for GRP cowls – perfecting the look and structure of your cowl, simply get in touch with our expert oast house Team for a consultation.

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 drying 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