the art of straw-plaiting

There is always a nugget of social history to uncover, and the cottage industry of straw-plaiting is just one example.   In the winter when the work in the fields was completed, the women of Sible Hedingham used lengths of straw to plait and make into bonnets and other items to sell.  This was not only for their own benefit, but the work was of such high quality there was a regular consignment sent to sell in London, forming an important source of income.  There are some beautiful examples in the local museum, and artist Tim Ward has used this as inspiration for railings commissioned as part of the Bloors housing development in Sible Hedingham.


Railings referencing straw-plaiting cottage industry


The brown-field site formerly had industrial uses, including the Rippers’ carpentry company making windows and air-planes, whichever was required.  Tim has used this to create beautiful benches installed in the pocket park at the entrance to the development.


Bench referencing Rippers carpentry workshop

The sweep of the top-line reflects the curve of the waterway.  Formerly piped, Bloors have opened up the stream providing a new habitat for insects, but also providing greater capacity to prevent flooding.   The waterway flows through the centre of the development and into public open space that was previously closed off by the factory.  It’s a very successful development made all the more memorable by the artworks created by Tim Ward.

Working in partnership with Bloor Homes


When is a plastic bottle a 50W light bulb?

The answer to this riddle according to Mike Stephenson,  is when it’s a ‘litre of light’.

IMG_20160217_142916398This amazingly simple technology is bringing light to thousands of otherwise dark homes, where dwellings are built side by side and back to back, without services.

These simple lights involve a clear plastic bottle filled with water and a little bleach (the latter is to keep the water clear).  The bottle is fitted into a hole in the roof, so that the top section is outside in the daylight, and the lower part of the bottle protrudes into the room.  (Sealant and the lid on the bottle help to keep it secure and weather proof). The refractive properties of water ensures that the light from the sun becomes omni-directional mimicking an electric light bulb and emitting the same amount of light as a 40–60 W incandescent bulb into the room.

Cheap but effective and means that people can live, work and study in previously dark rooms.  The bottles can also be fitted with a small solar panel that saves enough daylight to last 10 hours after sunset.

The E-luminate festival (Cambridge) this year brought the ‘litre of light’ workshop to St. Giles Church where the decorated bottles were used to create beautiful installations, effectively spreading the word about the project.   Brilliant!




The Bulmer Brick and Tile Company

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.kiln

Proper Bricks

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.