The bricks of Bulmer
PUBLISHED: 12:07 27 May 2014
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