PROPERTY / Houses in the Landscape: Keeping the brick kiln burning: Brick: The Craftsman: Caroline McGhie visits a family business in East Anglia where bricks are still hand-made the traditional way

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The Independent Culture
STEP into the brickworks of Peter Minter and his family on the borders of Essex and Suffolk and you travel in time through several centuries of brickmaking. This is one of the very few places in the country where bricks are still hand-made, even hand-carved if necessary, and baked in a traditional kiln heated by coal fires that are kept stoked night and day.

Behind the rambling, ivy-covered work sheds lie the diggings, which look like small inland cliffs. This is where the London-bed clay is excavated to a depth of around 20ft. The seam of orangey, crumbly clay has been lying there for between 25 and 30 million years, part of a wedge of clay beds that cuts across from Southampton to the Wash. A thin black line near the surface is due to a sprinkling of volcanic ash that blew over from Norway millions of years ago.

Minter's brickfields are situated in the very cradle of early brickmaking. 'When brickmaking was established after the Roman occupation, it started here,' he says. 'By the late 1100s or early 1200s monks were coming over from the Continent and bringing brick-making skills with them. The earliest evidence of brickmaking was at Coggeshall in Essex, very near here. It took off in areas where there was very little stone.'

The clay here is high in iron, so it burns to a warm terracotta red. It is also very 'tolerant', which means that it doesn't shrink much and it doesn't mind the frost. The fact that the nearby field is known as Brickfields is confirmation that it attracted early brickmakers. 'They were itinerants,' says Minter, 'because it was easier to move the man than it was to move the material, but by the late 1600s the industry was becoming more commercial.'

For hand-made bricks, it is essential to sieve the sand and the clay to achieve a fineness of quality that is close to pottery. The clay is thrown with sand into a blunger, which is like a large food mixer. From there it is pumped into a vibrator where it is pressed through sieves; the fineness of the mesh varies according to the quality of brick required. Then the clay rests in a huge vat until it becomes dry enough to be malleable.

Once the clay has been made into blocks and fired, the bricks go to the carvers, who cut each one individually, following a template, just as if they were cutting stone. 'People don't realise that many of the bricks that went into the chimneys of the 1500s weren't moulded bricks, they were carved,' Minter says. Today, the brick pattern of a complicated arch or chimney will be drawn on paper. The cutter will then cut, lay and number each one to fit.

Watching moulded bricks being made is like seeing a cook knocking out loaves of bread at a breathtaking rate. First a lump of dough-like clay is kneaded on a work surface, thrown into a mould like a baking tin, and the edges cut away with a kind of rolling pin. Everything is liberally floured with sand, to stop it sticking. 'The clay is a living material, so you mustn't force it into anything, or bash it or press it. You have to feel it,' Minter explains.

One man can produce as many as 600 bricks per day, which are then laid out in rigid geometric patterns in rows beneath the hack sheds - drying areas that don't have walls but do have low pitched roofs to keep off the rain.

The bricks remain in this 'green' or uncooked state for up to three weeks, or until they are dry enough to bake. The brick kiln at Bulmer Brick & Tile, a dilapidated circular building dating from 1937 which has seven fires built into the exterior wall, is a triumph of craftsmanship over modern manufacturing. It may look like a picturesque ruin but the sulphurs within produce bricks of such rustic beauty that you never want to see an extruded factory- made brick ever again.

The kiln takes a week to stack, four days and nights to fire, and a week to unload. It swallows 12,000 bricks at a time. Each load might include anything from a single brick embossed with a Tudor rose to a set made according to the techniques of a particular period or area. Minter will 'read' and match bricks by visiting a building or using photographs sent in by clients working on restoration projects. Bits of Hampton Court, Herstmonceux Castle in Sussex, St Pancras Station in London, and some of the finest country houses in England, owe their most recent facelifts to this kiln.

SPECIALISTS

Bulmer Brick & Tile, Bulmer, near Sudbury, Suffolk CO10 7EF (0787 269232). Makes bricks in the traditional way, hand-made and kiln-fired, to order. Also manufactures all the specials from bullnose to squints, crowsteps to moulded terracotta and gauged bricks for rubbing. Bulmer bricks have gone into many of Britain's prominent buildings, including Windsor Castle and Hampton Court.

Ockley Brick, Wallis Wood, near Ockley, Surrey (0306 627481). Supplies machine and hand-made bricks, fired in modern tunnel kilns, in a spectrum of reds to purples, some with a weathered finish. The company will also do bespoke bricks to order and roof tiles, and is one of the last producers of mathematical tiles (mock bricks) in the country. At Sittingbourne, Ockley Brick makes a range of yellows and London stocks using town ash.

Gerard Lynch, 23 Maple Grove, Woburn Sands, Milton Keynes MK17 8QN (0908 584163) is a master bricklayer, consultant, lecturer and author (see below) who gives masterclasses to those interested and has worked as an adviser to English Heritage.

English Heritage, 429 Oxford Street, London W1R 2HD (071-973 3673) is organising a one-day conference entitled Pointing Brick & Stonework for conservation officers, other interested parties and all-comers. Price pounds 43 plus VAT, which includes conference papers, morning coffee, lunch and tea.

READING LIST

Brick Building in Britain by R W Brunskill, published by Gollancz at pounds 24.99.

Brickwork, History, Technology and Practice, Volumes One and Two by Gerard Lynch, from Donhead Publishing, 28 Southdean Gardens, Wimbledon, London SW19 6NU. Price pounds 32 each or pounds 58 inc p&p for the set.

Practical Building Conservation: Brick, Terracotta and Earth, by J and N Ashurst, published by Gower Technical Press, available through English Heritage Postal Sales, PO Box 229, Northampton NN6 9RY (0604 781163). Price pounds 20.45 plus pounds 3.06 p&p.

Tuck Pointing In Practice (pounds 1), Pointing Stone and Brick Walling (pounds 2), The Need For Old Buildings to Breathe (pounds 1) from the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, 37 Spital Square, London E1 6DY.

(Photographs omitted)

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