The steep, pyramid-shaped roofs and curvaceous roundels of oast houses are a traditional part of the landscape in the south of England particularly in the counties of Kent, East Sussex and West Sussex. They can also be found in other hop-growing (and former hop-growing) areas such as Hampshire, Surrey, Worcestershire, Herefordshire and Gloucestershire. There are further examples in the north of England, Scotland, Europe and as far away as Australia.
Oast houses were used to dry hops (used for brewing). The green hops were spread out on drying floors within the kiln. These floors were thin and perforated and allowed hot air from a wood or charcoal fire at the bottom of the kiln to pass through. The distinctive cowls at the top of the oast towers controlled the airflow and ensured that a good draught was created to keep the fires going.
Oasts first appeared in England in the 16th century, though most of the surviving examples are from the 18th and 19th centuries. Traditional oasts constructed in the 18th / 19th century normally have two to three drying floors and between one and eight kilns. The kilns could be circular, square rectangular or octagonal. Materials used in the construction including timber, bricks, ragstone and sandstone. Cladding could be timber weatherboards, corrugated iron or even asbestos sheet.
As the hop-picking process became more mechanised, many oasts fell into disuse. Some were demolished, others became derelict. However, with increasing demand for housing, many oasts began being converted into houses. One of the earliest examples was an oast at Meopham Green which was converted in 1903. More and more people are attracted to the idea of living in a property with so much character and so many oast houses have been converted for residential use.
Converting what is in effect a giant chimney throws up all sorts of challenges but if successfully dealt with, can result in a special and unique property. The popularity of turning these distinctive buildings into homes has gathered pace since the 1960s, but converting them is no easy task and can be very expensive to do well.
Many of those converted in the early days were done very poorly. They had little value and changed hands for what seems like pennies now. They were then converted as cheaply as possible.
As more and more oast houses are converted, finding an unconverted one has become increasingly difficult. In fact, such is their popularity, there are "oast houses" which have never had an agricultural past at all. They are new builds built in the style of a traditional kiln and oast. There are even companies which specialise in the construction of bespoke oast cowls - an item that would have no functional use in agriculture today.
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