Every October, we welcome more than 200 people to our Sussex Estate to pick grapes during harvest. It’s a wonderful time of year when new friends are made whilst working shoulder to shoulder in the vines. In this blog, Damien recounts his time picking grapes at Rathfinny. If you’re inspired to get involved, you can register your interest here.
Words by Damien
In October 2022, my partner and I decided it would be a good idea to get out of our comfort zone and do something a little bit different. So we took a break from our freelance jobs to become seasonal workers at Rathfinny Vineyard in East Sussex, where for three weeks we would take part in their annual grape harvest.
Harvest is an annual event that has taken place for as long as man and woman have been tilling the earth, so we were excited to step into the shoes of our ancestors, to reconnect to the land and be part of something bigger than ourselves. In the UK the harvest festival is traditionally celebrated on the Sunday nearest the harvest moon, which this year was late September. We were starting just a few weeks later at the start of October when the grapes had fully ripened and were ready to be turned into wine.
We first became aware of the grape harvest when we visited the vineyard for a wine tasting in August, where we had a great time learning about the exciting new wine industry in the UK, as well as tasting some lovely wines in the specially made tasting room. Rathfinny specialise in making Sussex Sparkling wines which have achieved a protected status (PDO). Grown on the chalky soil of the South Downs it is said to be geologically very similar to that of the Champagne region in France, essentially Britain’s answer to Champagne.
The harvest required us to be available for three uninterrupted weeks of picking at the start of October. The start date was approximate rather than exact in order to give the grapes as much time as possible to ripen and yield the greatest amount of wine.
At the start of October, we received an email that said we’d be starting on the 8th October! We were told that we needed to arrive before 8am on the first day to meet our teams and team leaders. It was an early start for us as we were travelling from slightly further afield than some. Added to this we don’t have a car, so getting to the vineyard on time required some creative logistics. We devised a plan to catch a train to Berwick train station, just a few miles from the vineyard and then complete the journey on our bikes. It all sounded very practical on paper.
On the first day the alarm went off at 5:30am, as we sprung out of bed and headed to the station with our bikes. So far, so good. We arrived at Berwick station just before 7:30am with plenty of time for the bike ride. The sun had just risen over the station house as we stepped onto the platform as I paused to capture the moment. After a positive start the bike ride turned out to be more difficult than we had anticipated, but after negotiating some heavy traffic we arrived at the entrance to the vineyard and left the roads behind. The vineyard approach isn’t your average driveway as it heads directly up into the heart of the South Downs, it is necessarily an extreme incline. After a deep inhale we started making our way. Most of it was too steep for us to cycle, so we pushed our bikes up the steepest parts and cycled where we could on the flatter sections. Half an hour later we arrived sweaty but relieved to be only a few minutes late.
We located our group and were met by Julie B, our designated team leader who greeted us with a friendly smile and a familiarity that set us at ease. Registration was followed by a quick demonstration of how to remove grapes from the vines and then a crash course in knowing the difference between a good grape and a bad grape. Induction complete we were on our way to the vines!
Over the following days, we got to know our team very well. Besides the picking, there was little to do but talk to each other, so that’s what we did. Early reservations dissolved and we quickly became a team who worked hard for each other. It was surprising to see how quickly a team formed between a bunch of total strangers and while I can’t speak for everyone, I believe we collectively felt our group was special, in how much we liked one another.
One of the best things about the harvest was that anyone could do it and because of that, it felt like a full representation of society. There were retired people doing it for a bit of extra cash, young people who hadn’t long left education, people who were doing it for the experience, people from other countries, temporary workers who changed jobs on a regular basis and everything in between. It was a mix of people from all walks of life and everywhere you looked were smiles of people pleased to be there.
I don’t remember picking my first grapes, but I do wonder how many I picked. Right there at the beginning, it was a daunting feeling to look around and see how many grapes there were. But I soon got into a rhythm and was amazed at how fast the time went.
The groups were organised to work one row at a time, and would descend on the vines like a colony of ants, diligently removing fruit while working around each other before moving onto the next row. A row was a 100-metre channel up or down the valley that would usually take us 30-45 minutes to clear and within the row there were bays of 6-7 metres wide. It was one person to a bay and once you had finished your bay you’d circle to the front of the group and begin again.
It quickly became apparent that some of us were faster than others. Realising that I was one of the slower pickers, I decided that offence was the best form of defence and pre-empted any potential scrutiny by regularly announcing (to anyone who would listen), that I picked, “Quality rather than quantity!”, (which I do believe is true). At the other end of the spectrum was a quiet guy called Jason. Where most pickers would talk as they picked, Jason just picked. When I spoke to him later on in the harvest, he told me that this was his 5th harvest, and that he was hoping to travel to Europe next year to pick at the vineyards there where they pay by the weight rather than by the hour. I didn’t blame him for this, it almost seemed unfair that he was getting paid the same as me when he was picking maybe two or three times the amount I was. I agreed he should go to Europe and make his fortune.
The first day went by in the blink of an eye and it was time to go home. Fortunately I had spoken to John, a member of our team during the day about giving us lifts to and from the station as he, “went that way”. We were obviously delighted as this meant no more scaling Everest on a daily basis. We got home in the evening, 12 hours after we left and had just enough energy to make some food and prepare lunch for the next day, before we both fell asleep on the sofa.
Rathfinny is set in a valley just a few miles from the sea, which apparently is the same criteria the Romans used to choose the location of their vineyards, (many of which were in Britain). While this was undoubtedly a very interesting fact, it did mean that we were spending fifty percent of our time walking up very steep hills, which started to take its toll on my out-of-shape office body.
Throughout the first week, my body was undoubtedly in some kind of shock as the change of demands placed on it became very difficult to manage. In that first week, I was convinced every day could have been my last. Every morning I got out of bed feeling like I had been hit by a train, but by the time I had got to the vineyard I was ready for another day. I would closely scrutinise the other workers for signs that they were struggling like me, but they seemed fine. So, I kept turning up and walking up those hills. I think I got through it by thinking no further ahead than the present moment.
The days passed and I got used to the early mornings, gradually appreciating that special time of the day when all is unrealised and still. The beautiful sunrises arrived a little bit earlier each day and I was coping much better with the physical side of the job. Instead of dragging myself up and down the hills at the back of the group, I was suddenly marching at the front, genuinely astounded at the speed with which my body had adapted.
Back in the vines, I was fully into my new way of life. My technique had become more refined and fluid and I wasn’t the slowest in our group anymore. My job became about being constantly focussed on what I was doing, immersing myself in the subtle actions which became so well practised. If you didn’t concentrate you would most likely snip your fingers, a rather painful way of being brought straight back to earth. I learnt the hard way, by the end of the first week I had an impressive collection of blue plasters covering most of the fingers on my left hand. I even snipped one finger in exactly the same place twice. John, who by now had been given the imaginative nickname farmer John (he was a farmer), had a nasty incident one afternoon in the first week, nearly chopping the top of his finger off. I winced when I heard what he had done and got that funny feeling in the pit of my stomach. Being a farmer, he was quite matter of fact about it though and after he had stuck some tape around it, didn’t make much of a fuss.
The days passed faster as we got into our routine; eat, sleep, pick, repeat. In a way it all went rather quickly, like a dream. In another way it seemed to last for much longer than the two and a half weeks we were there. Such is time.
We had prayed for a dry October and the weather gods must have been listening, because apart from a few wet and windy days the weather was glorious. Towards the end of the harvest there were some wetter days. Picking on wet days, the fruit can spoil more easily so we were given days off on these days, returning when the weather improved. The location of the vineyard in a valley meant it was even harder to predict what the weather was going to do, so the vineyard managers used a combination of forecast and intuition. Farmer John would regularly give his own forecast based on his innate knowledge of nature, honed over years outside it was often more accurate than the forecast and would impress us all on a daily basis.
Spending hours in the vines each day meant you were subject to surround sound conversations, from your own team and others in the adjacent rows. One of the most common subjects you would hear being discussed was food. What people were having for dinner, what they had for breakfast, what their favourite food EVER is. There wasn’t a day that went by where you wouldn’t overhear a conversation about food. It made me hungry.
Before we knew where we were, the harvest was ending and we had picked the last grapes.
I experienced an unexpected mix of emotions upon finishing. I was of course delighted to have completed the harvest and to have proved something to myself. But there was also a sadness there, a lament that it was over. The hills which had become my office were closing for another year and I would no longer see the people I had grown to know and like over the past few weeks.
We spoke about the disbanding of a team that had just started to mature and how stopping at this point felt like a waste, a kind of stunting feeling, to stop just as you had got going. I asked Julie B if, should we do it all again next year, we could choose our team leader. She said that we could and so I was a little less disheartened in the knowledge that we could get the band back together.
In just 13 days we picked a total of 226 tonnes of grapes, made up of approximately 3.1 million bunches. We walked up and down, back and forth across 300 acres of downland, walking a total of 56 miles.
The harvest was everything I hoped it would be and more. It was a microcosm of society where you could observe the intricacies of human behaviour. It was the change we had been looking for. It was every bit the romantic notion I had had of what a harvest would have been, of people being together connected to the season, the land and each other. Everyone was there, everyone was represented. For me personally it was an opportunity to allow another part of me to come to the surface and just let go. Be in a team again, watch that team bond, grow and then see it disband and walk away. Like it was all just a dream, a nice one though.
By Damien Pestell.