Hopping Time in Apple Water Country

Four years ago I was sitting in the auditorium of the Market Theatre in Ledbury
watching the poet Maggie Sawkins perform her award winning piece ‘Zones of
Avoidance’ as part of the Ledbury Poetry Festival. As I contemplate my forthcoming
reading in the same venue on 3 July I am filled with delight. Not only shall I be
previewing my debut poetry pamphlet ‘Apple Water – Povel Panni’ published by the
wonderful Hedgehog Press but I will also get to see myself on screen and listen to
the song and poem that I read in the film. Stories from the Hop Yards has been
beautifully created by Catcher Media. It is a film that captures the life and spirit of
farmers, hop pickers and the local folk of Herefordshire. It features the work of the
late Derek Evans, a talented and prolific photographer. I’m not a local resident and
I’ve never picked hops but I have been influenced by the stories passed down from
my Romany family and for the last two years have been writing poetry, songs and
monologues based on Romany life. I am half Gypsy Romani, a Didikai in the Romani
language. My mother’s family are true Romany. I grew up listening to the language,
enchanted by its musicality and deep beauty. One of my poems entitled ‘A Memory
of the Hop Fields’ is based on my granny’s experience of being a child. She like my
grandfather and mother went hopping in Bromtrees and Five Bridges but it is in
Bishop’s Frome that they have the fondest of memories.

‘She stands up, rubbing her lower back/her mind shaping a memory/ the hop
fields / her mother lean, strong,/ picking the hops as quick as a squirrel. / Her bal in
plaits, tied on top of her head. / Her gold hoops pulling her ears down. / Ruddy
cheeks, dry cracked lips.’

After completing a Masters Degree in Creative Writing at the University of
Chichester I began working with a mentor, the poet James Simpson who
encouraged me to write about my ancestors. Since then I have been researching
and listening to the many stories told by members of my family. They not only picked
hops but made and sold pegs, my grandfather was known as the best peg maker in
Kent. This was another county where my family picked hops and strawberries. My
grandfather would sit on the steps of the wagon (vardo) and with his little knife (churi)
would make the pegs (chinning the koshtie’s) as it was called.

‘He works quietly, / dropping the shavings into a bowl./ He remembers making the
pegs, / chinning the koshtie’s, they called it / when he was on the drom. His dad
taught him the craft, / how to grind the tips until they were sharp, / how to make the
handle level so it fitted snug in the hand, / never scolding him if he got it wrong.’
(Making the Vados)

Hop picking in Herefordshire was hard work but so enjoyable. They would cook
their own food (hobben) and sometimes they would bake an hedgehog
(hotchiwitchi). I wrote a poem of the same name which is included in my pamphlet.

‘to bake an otchiwitchi; / roll it in the clay / drop it in the embers of yer yog. / go
and sing a song, / chase a sushi down the drom, do a little jig jog, jog.’

I was delighted to learn that hedgehogs are also called jog, jogs, yog means fire
and shushi is a rabbit. I am passionate about keeping the Romani language alive. In
years gone by it was a secret language, spoken only to other Gypsies, never to
giorgio’s, (non-Romani’s). Poetry is one way of keeping it alive, both on the page and
on the tongue.

After a long day in the fields my people would go to the local pub, the Green
Dragon where they would sing, dance and drink beer from the bath outside. This
poem recounts a story of the time my mum Phyllis met my dad who was from the
Welsh Valleys.

‘One Friday night under / a sickle of moonlight / they sat on a bench / in front of
the Green Dragon beer shop. / The landlord had filled an old bath with beer, / the
hoppers were dipping their mugs / into the frothy liquid, / it dripped onto their bare
chests.’ (Kamavtu)

This story was told to me by one of the landlords of the Green Dragon some ten
years ago. He said that the Gypsy Travellers were ‘good as gold’ but there were a
couple of rough families and when they came to the village the Special Constabulary
was called out to keep an eye on the proceedings.
Writing about old Herefordshire has brought me closer to the land. I too have
grown to love this place, its wild, feminine terrain, the stunning landscape and the
beautiful drive from the Malvern Hills out towards Bishop’s Frome. I was born in

South Wales and the fact that I can see the Welsh Mountains gives me a strong
sense of belonging.

I am thrilled to be reading at the festival this year and am excited about the
publication of my first small collection of poems. ‘Apple Water – Povel Panni’, this is
a term that was used by the Romany Travellers for the county of Herefordshire in
Victorian times and earlier. I hope that the audience will enjoy listening to the
Romani language with its rhythms and song like phrasing. It is a privilege to be
sharing my work and an honour to be celebrating my Romany Heritage. My mother
died in 1996 aged sixty three. This is part of a poem written for her:

‘I see you in the hop fields, / your hair tied up under a scarf ,/ your gold hooped
earrings dangling. / You are picking hops, / singing an old gillie, / perhaps ‘I’m a
Romany Rye?’ / Walking back through the vines to the wagons / your skirt swinging,
/ your father calls, ‘come on my Phylly, gel on.’ / You try to catch up with him. / I see
you smiling, I hear you say. / Daddy, daddy, wait for me.’ (I See You in the Hop Fields)

Thanks to Words from the Wild & Hedgehog Press for publishing ‘A Memory of the
Hop Fields and Hotchiwitchi.

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