Reed all about it
PUBLISHED: 06:58 28 April 2014
The afternoon sun is low in the sky, casting an orange glow over the swaying reed bed where. The reed cutters are hard at work, harvesting the water reed using the traditional hook. This marshland scene could have been from centuries ago.
The reeds are bundled up and raked to remove debris. “Knocking up” is the final step in preparing the bundles before they are stacked; whacking the base of the bundle on a wooden board to line up the stems ready for thatching.
Norfolk has a rich heritage of thatching. Reed can grow abundantly here, particularly in Broadland and on the north Norfolk coast. These carefully managed reed beds not only provide a natural flood defence, they are also home to some of our shyest and most elusive creatures. Both the rare bittern and that cute moustachioed ball of fluff, the bearded tit, depend on carefully managed reed beds. Mammals, like the otter and harvest mouse, love the sanctuary of the reeds, as do many moths and invertebrates.
There is nothing quite as pretty as a thatched property, and thatch has to be retained on many listed properties or those in conservation areas. However, the North Norfolk Reed Cutters Association estimates that approximately 80pc of the reed used for thatching in the UK now comes from abroad. The reasons are price - imported reed often costs less due to cheaper labour - and because many nature reserves here choose not to commercially harvest their own reed beds.
For a nature reserve, reed cutting is necessary because it stops reed beds turning into scrub woodland. However, the reeds are often cut and then burned according to strict management timetables that benefit the wildlife, rather than fit around commercial reed cutters’ needs.
Thatch has a romantic, old-fashioned image, but it’s time to think again, because there is much more to thatching than heritage. Modern, low-energy building designers are discovering the potential of thatch. When compared to modern roofing materials such as clay or concrete pantiles, it has impeccable low-carbon credentials. The reed or straw, when locally-sourced, create renewable and sustainable building materials. While they are growing, they lock up carbon and can be easily composted when replaced.
In Norfolk, there is an exciting project that will demonstrate just how amazing thatch can be. A new building, The Enterprise Centre, is under construction at the University of East Anglia, on the outskirts of Norwich. Here, the Adapt Low Carbon Group is working with the East Anglia Master Thatchers Association to show what innovative design and local collaboration can create.
The Enterprise Centre, designed by Architype, BDP Engineers and Churchman Landscape Architects, is no small, chocolate box cottage. It is a large, commercial building incorporating innovation in every aspect of its design. The thatch will be an integral part of the cladding and roofing, but used in new ways.
A technique is being developed that means the thatch can be produced off-site, so enabling thatchers to work in barns over the winter when weather conditions can make working outside difficult. The straw or reeds will be made into moveable panels that can be transported to the building and simply attached to the walls, forming a visually stunning outer layer.
As Bungay-based thatcher, Nick Walker, who is working on the panels, says, “This project really shows how versatile thatch can be. It will be a springboard for other companies, building firms and architects to start using thatch more imaginatively and I hope it will attract more young people into the trade.”
This century’s old art stands at a fascinating point. It both epitomises heritage and the natural, rustic touch, yet is also on the cusp of evolving into an innovative and modern industry. Either way, it is Norfolk through and through.
For more information:
Adapt Low Carbon Group’s Enterprise Centre, www.adaptcbe.co.uk, 01603 591366.
The North Norfolk Reed Cutters Association, www.norfolkreed.co.uk
East Anglia Master Thatchers Association, www.eamta.co.uk
Nick Walker thatching, www.nickwalkerthatching.co.uk, 07867 977832.
Capturing the moment
The stunning pictures for this feature were taken by Julian Claxton, an editorial and documentary photographer based in the region, working throughout the UK. Julian has held several solo exhibitions and published two books, Life with the Air Ambulance and Behind Closed Doors. Photographing people is the highlight of Julian’s work, and travelling the world with his camera remains one of his passions.
See more of Julian’s work at www.julianclaxtonphotography.com
Taking the Broad view
Reed and sedge has been cut and harvested in the Broads for centuries. Bundles of the tall Norfolk reeds, which can grow up to 10ft in height, were transported from the reed beds by boat, using the network of dykes and rivers which gave access to the nearby settlements.
The reed was used to thatch buildings of all types, including churches and barns. Other vegetation was cut as feed and bedding for animals. The cutting process helped keep the traditional Broads landscape open by preventing the fens becoming overgrown by scrub and woodland, and provided a natural habitat for wildlife and plants.
The commercial reed-cutting industry experienced a steady decline and had almost died out when, with assistance from the Broads Authority, the Broads Reed and Sedge Cutters Association (Brasca)(www.reedcutters.norfolkbroads.com) was formed in 2002.
This European award-winning project enabled the association to access grants for training and cutting equipment and has resulted in 10 new reed cutters taking up the trade. It has also provided other work such as coppicing and scrub clearance, which helps provide the cutters with a stable income throughout the year.
Although modern mowing equipment has been developed, the trade is still harsh work and labour intensive: Reed is cut from December to the end of March, once frosts have removed the leaves from the reed stems; and hand tools are still used in vulnerable areas and during high tides. Sedge, more flexible than reed, is cut in the summer. Reed beds are now being restored and reed is being cut commercially on some sites for the first time in many years.
Norfolk reed is reckoned to be the best thatching material there is and the Broads Authority and Brasca are working hard to ensure that reed and sedge cutting continues in the Broads.