Walking into the Bulmer brick works is a bit like stepping into a medieval world or a scene from the Hobbit. Greeted by dome shaped kilns and metal strapped chimneys the flanking temporary walls of drying bricks are regimented either side of an age worn furrow where the wooden barrows trundle up and down. The site has been in continuous production since at least Tudor times and is known to have been present on the site in some form since the middle ages.
The bricks themselves, dusted with sand, are objects of beauty drying in the sun before being transformed by the heat of the kiln to reveal the rich depth of colour of the baked clay. Finest Red London Clay is the chief component dug from the surrounding land. The bricks are handmade using the traditional technique and fired in a coal fuelled, down draught kiln. Today the bricks are mainly manufactured to match bricks from historic buildings for clients such as The National Trust, English Heritage, The Royal Palaces, as well as individual home-owners. The bricks can be made to any size or in any quantity of plain bricks, along with ornamental ‘specials’ of traditional or contemporary designs. Samples of these ornamental bricks are stored in the adjoining sheds and have their own stories.
A favourite is the heart shape encompassing the spray of wheat. It is a tangible record of the straw-plaiting industry that was so important in the area particularly for women and children to earn extra money when not required to work in the fields.
In Sible Hedingham these ornamental bricks were a feature of the vernacular style, and can still be seen in remaining early buildings. They are now being included in new buildings too as a way adding a unique feature to homes. Varied in design, from heraldic symbols to specially moulded cat faces, or date plaques for bespoke orders.
A similar brick works, the Cambridgeshire Tile and Brick Company in Burwell, was recommissioned about twenty years ago and is now supported by the team at Bulmer and the East of England Buildings Preservation Trust. One interesting product are the mathematical tiles. Originally devised as a way of avoiding paying the brick tax levied between 1784 – 1850 the tiles are partly overlapping and in-filled with a lime mortar to form a flat surface that looks like either header bond or stretcher bond brickwork. Rather than purely matching tiles for historic buildings, these tiles are potentially suitable as a skin for eco homes and certainly offer a contemporary look without resorting to timber or renders.
New Old Bricks for New Buildings
New funding is being sought to update equipment and increase production at the Burwell site, as well as developing installation advice to ensure that ventilation and roof pitch specifications facilitates the use of these traditional products whilst meeting current building regulations. Given the shortage of bricks earlier in the year, making a local product may come some way to improve the supply chain to sustain levels of building required, whilst creating a sustainable business using local workforce and materials.