By Tom Massey
Clay plain tiles, or peg tiles as they are known in Kent, have been produced since Saxon times. Peg tiles are the main roof covering of historic buildings in Kent and create the vernacular pattern of the medieval roofline. The usual size is of a peg tile is 9″ to 10” long and around 6” wide and hung with 3 1/2″ spacing. But hand made tiles are not standardised and due to the shrinkage of clay these dimensions vary, adding to their random texture which is lost with machine made tiles. Traditionally hung with a riven wooden peg cleft from oak, and later pine imported from Europe, the peg was tapped into a square hole from below and hung on riven chestnut or oak. Iron pegs were then used in the 20th century. Today they are still hung, but with an aluminium peg, dropped in from above with sawn soft wood battens.
The market for second hand tiles in Kent is lucrative, with tiles fetching upwards of £1.00 each. The market is fed by theft and the dismantling of historic building. Many roofs have had to change from peg tiles to modern machine-made tiles or slates because of repeated theft. It has led to the decline of many historic buildings. This is often overlooked and it’s assumed that salvage yards buy their stock from reputable sources. When re-roofing a building, existing peg tiles should always go back on, assuming they are undamaged. There is always some loss and hard cement mixes add to this because they adhere to the tiles and they become very hard to remove, especially on the hips and ridge tiles. These tiles should then be replaced and mixed in with the existing.
I visited Babylon Tiles in Kent on a rainy but mild November morning. Babylon Tiles do not import their materials but use Wealden clay dug from the field that adjoins their workshops making them the only producer of true Kent peg tiles. As with all modern methods an element of mechanical processing is used to produce the tiles but they are essentially hand made using a small tool to make the square peg holes. They use local sands to create a range of coloured tiles to replicate the weathered patina of existing tiles. Historically this would probably not have been done and the tiles’ colour would have represented the materials in the vicinity of their production but modern fashions prefer this texture to be recreated. The patina of algae and weathering comes quickly to modern peg tiles and they soon blend in with the historic environment. The tiles are dried in polytunnels before they enter the kiln. It is surprising how hard they are before they are fired. The kilns are fired on gas.
Babylon Tiles has a feeling of authenticity, people making a living from a local product, using local materials in small workshops, producing small batches of high quality products. If only more businesses could be run like this. I believe that the use of new peg tiles has to be encouraged. Not only to save buildings from theft, but to support small specialist businesses like Babylon Tiles. Small local businesses need support to survive, without them more buildings are at risk and we will lose the role craftspeople play in the preservation of our historic buildings.