Heritage, lineage and tradition: these are the foundations of artisan Suffolk brickmaker Bulmer Brick & Tile, as they keep centuries-old methods alive by working to preserve Britain’s architectural history. It’s no surprise, then, that this small family firm is one of a select group of master craftsmen entrusted with the conservation of the Historic Royal Palaces.
“Hampton Court Palace is probably the principal building we work at,” says Tony Minter. “The Tower of London and Kensington Palace, being mainly brick palaces, are another two we’ve been involved with. We’ve worked at Windsor Palace, too, actually – any number of Royal residences. They always seem to have something for us to do!”
The essence of Bulmer Brick & Tile’s work is the preservation of the historical imperfections that make Royal buildings unique; to retain those architectural idiosyncrasies that chronicle the properties’ passage through time.
“It’s a different mindset really, to match exactly what’s there,” says Tony. “The bricks might not be straight, they might not be level, the bond could be running out, and they might be missing all their corners. But that’s how you have to put it back; if there’s a fault line that developed in the building, usually you have to put that fault back in.
“The average bricklayer would want to repair that and completely eliminate it. You can’t do that. We’re trying to conserve the building so in the future it can be read by people who can understand buildings, so they can see were the faults, the date lines and building lines occur.”
Each building is effectively treated as a historical document, where the bricks and mortar form a record of how and when the edifice has been altered in the past. It requires a keen eye for detail, and a masterful grasp of technique to be able to replicate the ravages of time when producing a new brick from scratch.
“Hampton Court is a very, very important building because it’s so well documented,” says Tony. “Probably 95-98% of the work that has been done on the palace over the years has been documented in the accounts, so they know who did it and when it was done and how much it cost. It’s that 3-5% that they don’t know which is the interesting bit, and that can change the meaning of the documents that curators refer to.”
What that means is that Bulmer Brick & Tile are now part of this Royal history themselves – their work recorded in the documents of work carried out on the palace. Not only that, but they become part of the work to piece together the missing parts of each building’s history, from their privileged position of being able to deconstruct and rebuild large parts of the building and, in doing so, uncover how they were originally pieced together. It’s a precise combination of artistry and science.
“John Warren was a very eminent architect who died not long ago,” says Tony. “He once said to my father and I, ‘well, you’re not really brickmakers.’ and my father said ‘well, John, that’s what we do!” and he said “no, no, no. You’re historians that happen to make bricks.” And actually that’s quite an interesting way of looking at it, and I think he’s absolutely right actually.”
None of this would be possible without Bulmer Brick & Tile’s heritage, or if it weren’t a small, family-run company. “It’s the only way I think it could survive,” says Tony. “Brickmaking, the way we do it, is not a way to make money – it’s a way of life.”
With each brick laboriously handmade and hand-fired over the course of a process that usually takes three to four months, there is a wealth of expertise that has been passed down through generations of the Minter family, and a commitment to keeping the old methods alive.
“My family have been onsite now for about 85 years,” says Tony. “My grandfather actually formed the Bulmer Brick & Tile company, but it was already a working – almost continuously working – brickyard. So clay has been extracted from here for a long, long time – the yard itself has been here for about 550 years, that we know of, and they were certainly extracting clay from this area during the Roman period.
“My father actually developed a small farm alongside the brickyard and, in the same way that farming is a 365 day a year job, so is brickmaking. You have to live on site, you have to be checking things every day – drying sheds, kilns, whatever it might be. You have to be on top of the job the entire time, and to run it as a business with a whole lot of people who don’t understand that – I don’t think you could afford to do it.”
With its unwavering devotion to the time-tested practices, deference to history and tradition kept alive through observance of heritage, Bulmer Brick & Tile are the perfect fit for the preservation of buildings that belong to a Royal Family made strong by precisely the same values.