The Hidden Landscape
Oak, if kept dry, appears to be virtually immortal. So the Chalk gives us—indirectly—some of the most venerable clusters of buildings in the country. This is particularly the case in areas where early affluence was followed by more modest circumstances militating against extensive rebuilding. Large chunks of Suffolk and Norfolk countryside are typified by timber-frame buildings constructed to a high standard in the great days of the wool trade, the beams often being plastered over and provided with further plaster decoration called pargetting. 'Pargeter' is still an East Anglian surname, and for all I know there may be pargeters still working, although I have never seen any recent examples of plaster flowers and fruits with the exuberance of the Elizabethan ones. Another consequence of building on the Chalk was a comparable rarity of roofing 'slates,' and the chalklands are accordingly one of the great areas for thatched cottages. Thatch features on American tourist brochures as a prime ingredient of quintessential quaint England: 'England, the country where the houses still wear wigs.' With such nookery-dellery stuff around it is salutary to remember that thatch was used because it worked well using local materials: the Chalk provided no other. This applies to other areas of the country, such as Tertiary East Anglia, with equal force. Reeds (Phragmites) were used for thatch that was remarkably durable, but reeds require stretches of shallow, still water in which to grow, and many parts of the chalklands (not least Salisbury Plain) lack this habitat. In these areas long straw was the usual material for thatching: everything from the wheat-field had a use. This use relied on cereals having long stalks, something that may be helpful for thatching but made the cereals more likely to blow down. Hence plant breeders produced sensibly short-stemmed cereals, which made thatching straw more of a special commodity. Nonetheless, a smart thatch is a particularly handsome roof—well insulated, and its overhang protects cob or wattle and daub from getting wet, which otherwise causes rot. Reed thatch may last for twenty years before it has to be renewed. As a child, I even remember seeing thatched walls. The only disadvantage of thatch is its fire hazard (and the noise made by starlings which are almost impossible to keep out). Much thatch disappeared when roofing tiles became cheaper in the last century. You can readily spot these 'reroofed thatches' by the steep pitches they inherited. There is a final irony to the story of Chalkland thatch. Short straw is almost useless for this purpose, and some farmers choose merely to burn it, which returns its meagre minerals to the soil. Sparks from such straw-burning are one of the important causes of fire in thatched cottages—and when they burn, they burn to the ground. So what can no longer thatch them, now serves to destroy them.
But the most typical Chalkland buildings are of flint, or to be more accurate, brick and flint. Alec Clifton-Taylor, a normally faultless arbiter of taste in building stones, is a little disparaging about this combination, but it is a happy marriage which lends character to many otherwise architecturally undistinguished villages. Flint is a recalcitrant building stone, hard, difficult to shape, with rotten bits if there are fossils in it—but it is tough. The flint can be restrained and guided by courses of bricks that take on the difficult corners or door surrounds. The result is panels of mottled flints set in mortar surrounded by frames, usually of mellow red brick. Many such buildings date from after the appearance of cheap tiling, and so have red roofs rather than thatch. Presumably the bricks were the expensive material, and the flints were local ones. They vary in quality, and in the way they are treated. Most are at least crudely 'knapped,' which means one of their faces is broken approximately flat to face outwards: this broken side is usually the darker, fresh flint, and the contrast between the fresh face and the rest of the flint is what gives the stone panels their pleasing mottled look. Near the sea, flint cobbles from the beach are sometimes used whole, selected to match for size and shape as if they were hen's eggs. Sometimes a more innovative builder will make interesting patterns with them. The use of such pebbles extends outside the area of Chalk outcrop because the flint survives into younger formations, with different outcrop areas; and flints are found miles away from the Chalk to produce those pebbly beaches that are such agony to walk across with bare feet into the sea. In Suffolk, flint walls are common in areas underlain by Pliocene rocks. Hence beware lest too simple a reading of local building stones leads to false conclusions about local geology.