Instead of a red ribbon, a hop bine was strung across the doors for the Mayor of Guildford, Mike Parsons, to cut using the Hampton hop sampling knife. The oast and the hops were then blessed by the Rector of Seale, Sands and Wanborough, the Rev Stephen Thatcher, signalling the start of a traditional harvest party in the courtyard.

The Hampton hop gardens are situated on the strip of gault clay that runs along the base of the Hog’s Back. For the first time in decades, an extra nine acres have been planted with the distinctive and flavoursome Fuggles hops and this expansion, coupled with the declining health of the 1960s-vintage harvesting equipment, prompted the major investment programme.

The new oast and hop picking machinery are tucked away on the Hampton Estate. A massive barn is filled with a state-of-the-art, English-made Bruff machine that strips the hops from the bines, and the oast itself- a Heath Robinsonesque system of gantreys and conveyor belts taking the hops to the elevated drying floors.

The harvest is sold three years in advance so with growing demand from breweries, this development is a fantastic statement of confidence in the future of English hops.

“We wanted to expand our Fuggles production because of the demand,” explained Bill Biddell. “Our 14 acre hop garden was not big enough to be sustainable and our picking equipment was falling to bits so we had to do something.”

Realising that the old oast was within the Puttenham village envelope, Bridget and Bill Biddell suggested to the village that the site could be redeveloped for housing, which would enable them to finance a new oast on the estate. The idea was greeted with enthusiasm and there are now five new houses in the village built by Millwood Homes – a pair of semi-detached cottages and three detached houses.

“The council wanted a site for housing and the village was keen for us to keep hop growing here,” said Bill Biddell. “Now we have extended the hop garden down the valley. There is only about one person left in England who knows how to set up a hop garden or build an oast. The skills involved are incredible. We put the plants in first, then about 700 timber poles from the estate and miles of wire to form a tensioned matrix.

“And we have planted a new hedge along the lane under Countryside Stewardship to encourage hoverflies and ladybirds that will control aphids and other hop loving insects.”

The oast was designed and hand built on site from scratch by amazing husband and wife team Albert and Rachel Philpin. They also completely rebuilt the replacement hop picking machine, rescued from a shed in Worcestershire where it had been lying neglected for five years. It took nine months of hard work, but freshly painted, it looks immaculate, though the dust generated in the hop picking process means it needs a lot of skilled TLC to keep it happy!

Albert Philpin explained: “I have designed and built eight of these oasts. The smallest was three kilns and the largest was a 12 kiln oast in Hereford. I have to make everything myself. I order all the steel and it’s delivered on the floor here and I make it from that.

“I have all the design in my head. I vowed I would never do drawings again after someone took my drawings and got someone else to build it. Everything now is in my head. I prefabricate it and my wife paints it with red oxide and green paint and she does the riveting of the steel floors. I just weld the subframes. We make a good team.

“I use a three phase welder and have a big drill and saws and my carpenter friend Grant Floyd does all the woodwork. We moved the hop picker in six lorryloads of parts all the way from Worcester. It sat in a field here for two years waiting for planning permissions to come through, and then we brought it in and restored it.

“I’m the only one who does this hop kiln system now. There is another chap in Kent but he does two tier systems. We are the only two left in the UK who do them. I’m 75 years old but I still work because I absolutely love it. I am in talks with a customer about building an eight kiln machine now. The hop industry is on the up because micro breweries all want good quality English hops. But it’s a very expensive crop to grow. When the bottom fell out of the market a lot of hop growers simply gave up.”

The drying machinery was built by John Madigan of Octagon Products Ltd who has worked with Albert for years. “I supplied all the electronic controls and the gas burners for the hop drying equipment,” he said. “We have four burners creating a temperature of 60-65 deg centigrade. The hot air is drawn through the fan unit and blown onto the hops. We make grain dryers too. I’m only interested in the agricultural industry.”

There are only 52 hop growers left in England but this is the second hop garden to be planted in Surrey in the last few years. The Biddells helped the Hogs Back Brewery set up a small hop garden at Tongham, so Surrey hops are enjoying a welcome revival.

The harvesting of the bines is done by machine but the processing of the hops is still a matter for teamwork and it is a traditional student activity and social event, this year masterminded by Molly Biddell. The finished hops go to regional breweries across the UK. Fuggles is a classic English aroma hop. You can taste the difference when you drink a pint of Hogs Back TEA. Hampton Fuggles is a staple ingredient!

Pictured: Back Row L to R – Bill Biddell, Bridget Biddell, Rob Moore, Dan Thorpe, Ted Corner, Diana Thompson, Albert Philpin. Front row L to R – Chloe Biddell, Molly Biddell