Moulding, Knapping and Thatching in East Anglia

by Ross Perkin

Last week the Scholars embarked on a journey of discovery in East Anglia. The region’s identity is heavily linked to the natural material found there. East Anglia contains little stone but has a seam of clay suitable for making bricks. The extensive chalk belts contain a plentiful supply of flint which has been used for both rubble-work and knapped facing to walls for centuries. The use of long-straw as a traditional roofing thatch takes advantage of the expansive and fertile agricultural landscape.

The week started with a visit to Bulmer Brick and Tile Company near Sudbury in Suffolk. CEO Peter Minter spent a full day with us and outlined the history of one of the oldest producers of handmade bricks in Britain. Clay is taken from the ground behind the brickworks and goes through a milling and mixing process. After this it is thrown into a wooden mould and air-dried for a number of days before completion in a traditional brick kiln. The Scholars each made three bricks which are to be used at Hampton Court Palace (if they pass quality control procedures!).

Week18_Bulmers brickyard

Scholar Richard making a brick at Bulmer Brick and Tile Ltd with Peter Minter

We then travelled up to Norwich to meet Nick Warns (Scholar, 1984). Here we visited two flint churches. The walls of the church at Winterton-on-sea were built with an unknapped flint core with loosely knapped flint facing. The walls of St Mary’s in Great Yarmouth were a closely knapped flint face with a brick core. The different construction methods resulted in very different conservation approaches.

Week18_flint at Worton on Sea Church

Rebuilt, fully pointed, knapped flint above existing knapped flint at Winterton-on-Sea Church

Later in the week the scholars visited Shawn Kholucy (Scholar, 1981) in Hoxne, Suffolk where we saw some exquisitely close-knapped, flush-work flint at St Peter and Paul, Eye.

Eye Parish Church, Suffolk

Close-knapped, flush-work flint at St Peter and Paul Eye Parish Church Suffolk with Shawn Kholucy


The tradition of long-straw thatching has developed primarily in Suffolk and South Norfolk. Master thatcher Graham Borrill spent an afternoon explaining to us the entire process of the craft from field to rooftop. Graham grows his own long-straw which is put through a drying and threshing process before it is arranged into ‘gabbles’ and laid out onto a roof. The long-straw differs visually from wheat and water-reed thatch which is used in other parts of the country. Graham inspired all of us Scholars with his tales of travelling as a roadie with the Rolling Stones.


Thatching in the West Country

by Conor Meehan

During week 7 the four Scholars were joined by lead-worker Fellow, Tyrone Oakley for the week’s adventure. The group were guided by architect Jo Hibbert (2002 SPAB Scholar), the director at Levitate West Architecture and Design.

The first site visit of the week was to St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Exeter where Jo showed the group the affect of water infiltration on the building, as well as structural cracking and wide scale stone damage.

After securing emergency funding the structure was temporarily safeguarded and applications for further funding were made. 2009 Scholar Meriel O’Dowd, a Heritage at Risk surveyor for English Heritage, was also onsite to explain the allocation of emergency funds for buildings at risk.

Tuesday began with a visit to the Walronds, a Grade I Listed Cullompton townhouse. 2010 SPAB Scholar and architect, Andy Faulkner along with head architect, Marcus Chantry of Benjamin & Beauchamp Architects, were onsite to show us around the magnificent building.

Dating from 1605, the Walronds is now nearing the end of a large conservation project. The project has ensured that the house will continue to be the hub of the community and that it will generate long term funding options by providing space for events. The building was particularly interesting due to the diversity of the work being undertaken, such as plasterwork consolidation and repair, timber repairs, plastering, slate roofing, service installation and stone conservation.

New Picture (1)The day finished with off with a visual survey of St. Andrews Church in the same town, with Jo showing the group the various issues that she thought needed immediate conservation and repair.

On Wednesday, the group ventured to Somerset to meet Tom Dunbar, 1999 Fellow and master thatcher, who along with Nigel Bunce (also a master thatcher) was thatching two buildings in sunny Somerset. After a quick run through the thatching technique, the cocky Scholars were handed a wooden “legget” (a tool that hits the ends of the reeds and pushes them into position) and urged to have a go. Needless to say, thatchers complete a 4 year apprenticeship for a good reason! Attempting thatching in both water reed and wheat was a humbling and utterly worthwhile experience.

New Picture (3)

Getting our hands dirty

There’s no better way to learn than through practical experience, and one of the many perks of the SPAB Scholarship is that we get to try our hand at everything! Here’s just a few things that the ever-enthusiastic Henry has been turning his hand to over the last few weeks.

Henry tackles the drains with Nick Warns at Swaffham Church, Norfolk

It’s hardly glamorous but the regular maintenance of gutters and drains is often the first step in keeping an old building in good shape, especially as the British Summer weather is being true to form! As William Morris advised ‘stave off decay by daily care’. You can find advice and tips on basic maintenance by visiting our sister site Maintain Your Building.

SPAB Fellow Sam shows us the ropes at her workshop with Simon Armstrong at Wells Cathedral Masons

An important part of the Scholarship and Fellowship scheme is that Conservation professionals and craftsmen travel and work with each other, giving them an insight into the others’ practice and respect to last a lifetime of working together to help old buildings. This was a great chance for us to see Sam, and award-winning stonemason, at work on her home territory, the glorious Cathedral of Wells.

Henry has a go at Thatching with Tom Dunbar, of Dunbar & Bunce Master Thatchers.

A great chance to learn from Tom, who completed the SPAB Fellowship in 1999 and is the only thatcher so far to be a SPAB Fellow!

Stafford Holmes (co-author of ‘Building with Lime) imparts his knowledge of Lime at CAT

Henry just can’t stop working! Some time well spent at the Centre for Alternative Technology, an education and visitor centre which demonstrates practical solutions for sustainability, set in the heart of Wales.