The bricks of Bulmer

PUBLISHED: 12:07 27 May 2014

EXG MAY 14 BULMER BRICKS

EXG MAY 14 BULMER BRICKS

Archant

Bulmer has been providing the raw materials for brick-making across the south of England for centuries. Angie Jones visits the Bulmer Brick and Tile Company to find out more

The hill looked as if someone had taken a giant cake slice and cut it in half. Before me were mountains of freshly-dug clay and behind me a maze of well-trodden pathways between ramshackle, red brick sheds and workshops with sagging red-tiled roofs. A gentle rumble of machinery and occasional voices told me that people were at work. And everywhere were bricks; some stacked neatly in regularly patterns, 
some left haphazardly into forgotten corners, some peeping from wired metal crates and others piled up beneath white plastic sheets awaiting collection. Squints and copings, mullions, jambs, bullnose and pamments. Nestled among straw in a wooden crate were facing-tiles destined for a fine house near Faversham. Beside the puddles on the roadway were red Tudor bricks — these ones destined for Hampton Court. Indeed up and down the length and breadth of England (and perhaps beyond), in royal palaces and railway arches, country churches, stately homes and humble cottages are little bits of Bulmer hillside, disguised as bricks.


A messy business

I had an appointment with Peter Minter. I was glad of my Wellingtons as I squelched to the office, notebook in hand and camera around my neck. He greeted me with a warm smile and handshake and led me up the wooden stairs where odd bricks perched randomly on the sides of the treads.

‘Don’t mind about your boots,’ he said, noticing my hesitation, ‘We’re used to mud!’

The room was in the eaves and tree branches tapped against the window where the pale winter sun played with the shadows.

‘Have a seat,’ Peter said, indicating to a chair covered with a dog’s paw prints, and began brushing them off as best he could. He apologised. ‘Sorry, the dog usually sits there.’

He eased himself behind a big desk, sprawling with folders and piles of papers, two calculators and a telephone. He looked at home. Behind him the shelves were crammed with books and leaflets. Clipboards with charts and lists hung from hooks. Above them were framed photos of faces from the past and an aerial photograph of the site. And so it began, my journey into Bulmer Brick and Tile Company Limited at Bulmer near Sudbury.

The restoration man

Peter’s grandfather, Charles Stanley, an auctioneer and estate agent in Kent, had seen the plot advertised in the 1930s. He advised his son-in-law, Laurie Minter, a builder and surveyor, to go into brick-making and so in 1936 the firm was born. After the war, many landowners began demolishing old cottages that had fallen into disrepair, rather than rebuilding them. Laurie thought this was a shame, so in 1948 he began buying up derelict buildings, crafting bricks to repair these old buildings. This was the start of the restoration work which has become a main feature of this company. In 1974 Laurie died and Peter, who had worked there since 1950, inherited the business with its remaining three brick-makers all in their eighties. He realised he needed to train younger men and fast, so he developed the specialism in restoration. Today there are 15 skilled craftsmen and women at the firm, a testimony to his inspired vision and sound management.

Bricks have been made on this site by hand since 1798, though archaeological evidence reveals that 
a kiln stood nearby from as early as 1450. It was once just a clay-pit, part of Hurrell’s Hole Farm. A family called English owned it in the 19th century, until their daughter sold it in 1920, but brick-making continued throughout both world wars.

Centuries ago the waters of the Thames estuary deposited layers of London clay and fine silt here to lie in wait and provide the perfect raw materials for the industry that has 
grown upon it.


A simple process

In the autumn, for about ten days, a year’s worth of clay is dug from the hillside. It is left outside so sulphates can evaporate and then is soaked and pugged (mixed) to make it malleable before it is trundled to the maker’s table to be moulded by hand, one brick at a time.

Leaving the office, I watched Lorraine Quilter as she made floor bricks in what was once a chicken shed. Her mother made bricks and Lorraine played here as a child. She has worked here for more than 12 years. She sprinkled sand and banged a lump of clay into a wooden mould then sliced off the surplus with a bow wire and smoothed it with a metal strike. More sand was sprinkled before she flipped it over (as a child would tip a bucket of sand at the seaside) onto a small wooden palette and loaded it onto a barrow. The process took but a few seconds.

‘This order is for 4,000 bricks. I have about 3,000 to go,’ explained Lorraine, nodding at a huge heap of clay beside her bench. The order for St Pancras Station was even bigger — they required 70.000 bricks.

Peter gave me a guided tour of long dark sheds where hundreds of damp bricks were drying. We walked past shelves of decorative terra-cotta tiles 
(that retail for about £15) and inside one of two kilns (named Tom and Frank after former workmates), where two men in face-masks were unloading newly-fired bricks. In the rounded walls of the kilns are fire boxes where coal is burned.

As we walked, Peter told me of the book he is writing. ‘It’s called The Brick-maker’s Tale, but it’s not about me,’ Peter said, ‘It is about this place. You see, there’s a magic about it and the people who work here. One family is in their fourth generation and I came here at the age of three. I made a nuisance of myself in the workshops, but I learned about brick-making as a child. I’ve been here for 60 years. They gave me the Clay-Worker’s Medal for long service to the industry,’ 
he chuckled. ‘You have to do more than 40 years and they don’t have many people to give it to these days. My sons, Tony and David, plan to keep the business going in years to come.’

The book, published this spring, profiles the Bulmer Brick Company as Peter has seen it over the years and he has been writing and redrafting it over successive years during the Christmas shut-down.

We had reached the far side of the buildings, where I saw the cutaway hill. ‘There’s enough clay for another 25 years, maybe more,’ adds Peter. ‘We leave the land to regenerate itself and it does.’

As if to prove his words, a weasel skittered across the opening and disappeared into tangled undergrowth.

We wandered back to the car, passing the low, dusty-windowed buildings with half-open doors where strains of music entertains workers within and I thanked him, for I now understood his words. In my brief but privileged moments there, I too had felt ‘the magic of the place’. n

0 comments

Welcome , please leave your message below.

Optional - JPG files only
Optional - MP3 files only
Optional - 3GP, AVI, MOV, MPG or WMV files
Comments

Please log in to leave a comment and share your views with other Essex Life visitors.

We enable people to post comments with the aim of encouraging open debate.

Only people who register and sign up to our terms and conditions can post comments. These terms and conditions explain our house rules and legal guidelines.

Comments are not edited by Essex Life staff prior to publication but may be automatically filtered.

If you have a complaint about a comment please contact us by clicking on the Report This Comment button next to the comment.

Not a member yet?

Register to create your own unique Essex Life account for free.

Signing up is free, quick and easy and offers you the chance to add comments, personalise the site with local information picked just for you, and more.

Sign up now

More from Essex Life

Fri, 17:09

Escape to the Chateau star Angel Adoree is currently reaping the benefits of her incredible vision and drive to build an overseas wedding and lifestyle business from scratch with husband Dick Strawbridge. Here she tells Essex Life about series five of the hit Channel 4 show and how a strong Essex work ethic helped her dream so big | Words: Denise Marshall

Read more
Fri, 14:23

Being home to so many wonderful places to eat choosing where to go for dinner can often be difficult. With that in mind we’ve picked 20 of our favourite places to help you decide

Read more
Wed, 13:28

Hannah Salisbury from the Essex Record Office tells the story of an exciting project that is taking memories on tour around the county

Read more
Wed, 13:03

For those still figuring out how to spend your Friday through Sunday, we’ve rounded up 5 of Essex’s best things to do to ensure no second of your weekend is wasted

Read more
Tue, 16:32

We’ve put together 15 questions that will push your knowledge of Essex to the limit - let us know how you’ve done on social media!

Read more
Tue, 14:57

Stephanie Mackentyre continues her tour of Essex’s best eateries by stopping to eat at Dedham’s Sun Inn with her pooch

Read more
Tue, 14:17

From James Bond to Batman, Essex has been known to bask in a little Hollywood glitz. Here are 19 that have used our county’s incredible locations on the big screen

Read more
Friday, November 2, 2018

With the Christmas celebrations seemingly starting earlier every year, it all feels a little too ‘soon’ sometimes, but what if you want to look your best for Christmas & New year celebrations and are considering having cosmetic non-surgical procedures? The Bella Vou Pantiles Clinic offers surgical and non-surgical cosmetic procedures and treatments from a purpose-built private clinic in the heart of Royal Tunbridge Wells

Read more
Friday, October 26, 2018

Whether you know him for his madcap antics, his reality TV appearances or his unique voice, Essex boy Joe Pasquale has earned his place as one of the nation’s favourite entertainers. Kate Everett caught up with Joe to hear what’s next in his 30-year showbiz career

Read more
Friday, October 26, 2018

How do you fancy winning a weekend away to relax and unwind in the stunning Cotswolds countryside? Well, here is your chance!

Read more

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up to the following newsletters:

Sign up to receive our regular email newsletter

Our Privacy Policy


Follow us on Twitter


Like us on Facebook

Topics of Interest

Food and Drink Directory

Local Business Directory



Search For a Car In Your Area

Property Search