Local Building Materials

A description of a selection of different building materials used in local buildings.


The lack of building stone in this region has resulted in extensive use of flint in Happisburgh and other Norfolk villages.

Flint is very hard and indestructable but is easily fractured. Flint-stones are sometimes quarried from chalk, as in Neolithic times from Grimes Graves near Thetford. They vary in colour from white, through greys and brawls to black. After long exposure a white ‘rind‘ develops. These are the flints that are used for knapping, as having lain undisturbed they have no internal stresses. When using whole flints or ‘splits’, flints found on the beach and washed smooth by the sea were used, as were ‘field’ flints, which were gathered for constructing field walls and cottages. The beach flints will have been constantly bashed against each other by the motion of the sea, and will have many stress lines within. These are sometimes used for ‘splits’ ie split in half, but are not suitable for fine knapping.

PEBBLES are less than 2 1/2 inches in diameter: COBBLES, from 2 1/2 to 9 or 10 inches were used mainly for street paving.

RUBBLE WALLS were faced with flint. Large boulders or NODULES when obtainable, were inserted at intervals to tie the skin to the in-filling. Later, bricks were used for the same purpose.

Regular level courses of egg-sized pebbles were used in the 15th century and after, and can be seen in house walls all over North Norfolk – a good example can be seen at No xx, The Street Happisburgh.

Barrack stone from Northamptonshire was used in this church and in many other Norfolk buildings for quoins, door and window frames and arcades. Transport was by water. Before the Fens were drained navigation was possible across the deeper meres into the Ouse, then past Thetford to rivers in Broadland. Flints were also picked off fields by women and children for mending roads. Crushed ‘blue’ flints were used in the glass and ceramic industry.

KNAPPED FLINTS are cut, initially using a six pound hammer, and then with smaller ‘flat’ hammers to give smooth, flat surfaces. They were much used in 15th century East Anglian churches. Knapped square flints need less mortar, resulting a stronger construction.

Flakes of flint were often inserted between flints to protect the mortar. This technique is known as GALLETTING.

PHOTO Split flints and cobbles with galletting at Happisburgh Church.

FLUSHWORK (PROUDWORK – rarer than flushwork). Blocks of freestone were sliced into thin slabs, cut into patterned shapes and mortared onto a rubble flint wall. The spaces were then filled with knapped and ‘dressed’ flints (squared or cut to a definite shape). There are flushwork panels on the battlements of the tower, south aisle and clerestory of Happisburgh Church. One of the flushwork panels at the base of the tower is interesting as it shows the facings were put on after the flint had been laid, contrary to accepted practice.


FIRING – Early kilns were like potato clamps, turfed over. Itinerant brickmakers made bricks on site when possible. Ponds and moats found near buildings are often the result of clay digging.

Many Norfolk villages had a brick kiln. When ready for firing, bricks were carefully positioned to give maximum draught, leaving an inch gap between each. Gentle heat was given for the first two days, then the kiln was fuelled to the correct temperature and the opening closed. After two days of firing it was left for a week to cool down. By 1700 coal was replacing wood as a fuel. One ton of coal was needed to fire one thousand bricks

WALCOTT BRICK KILN, opposite the Lighthouse Inn, was owned by the Marshall family.

Photo – H G Marshall moulding bricks

Happisburgh had a brickyard in the early years of this century when a kiln was built on a field near Gold’s Corner. It was soon abandoned as the local clay was found to contain too many impurities.


‘Old Bottoms’ were fired nearest the heat at the bottom of the kiln. They were darker and harder than any others, and were used for damp resistant building bases. ‘Flared Headers’, with dark ends for making patterns on wall surfaces, were made by burning a large quantity of furze (gorse), the ends of the bricks coming into contact with the flames. In coal fired kilns they were placed close to the fire holes. ‘White’ bricks – actually buff or yellow, contained a high lime content. ‘Cossey Whites’ – a light yellow brick made at Costessey, were popular in the Norwich area in the 1930s. ‘Dutch Clinkers’ are yellow bricks found in ports trading with Holland. They are very hard and were used for paving yards and stables.


TILES were fired with bricks, but were shielded from the greatest heat to avoid warping.

NORFOLK PANTILES are larger than plain tiles, and have the advantage of overlapping transversely as well as in a downward direction. An Act of the reign of George I set the size after firing to be 13 1/2 ins. by 9 1/2 ins. and it is much the same today. Old pantiles have a pleasing variety of colour – pink, orange, buff, brown, yellow, green or grey.

GLAZED BLACK PANTILES were a Norfolk speciality in the early Georgian period. Glazing gives additional strength.


NORFOLK REED makes the most durable thatch. It has a life of from 60 to 100 years, whereas straw only lasts for 30 years or more. The projecting ends offer more resistance to attacks by vermin, and the hollow stems form an insulating layer. Thatch is at least 10% warmer than slate. SEDGE is used for the ridge coping. It is softer and more pliable than reed and lasts about 15 years.

REEDS are harvested in winter when frost has stripped the leaves from the stems. Cutting by hand was done with a scythe or sickle, but today mechanical harvesting is the usual method. Reed beds should be cut regularly, every two years at least, to promote tall good quality material. The cut reeds are tied in bundles or ‘bolts’ about 12 inches in diameter, and are sold by the ‘fathom’ – five or six bundles contained within a cord 6 feet in circumference. Some Thatchers believe that reeds last longer if mixed with 10 – 15% of reed mace (bull rush) and Flag Iris.

Photo – rethatching Happisburgh Manor Happisburgh Manor has the largest domestic Thatch roof in East Anglia (and probably the whole UK).

NORFOLK REED THATCH is laid in courses – bunches of reed laid side by side in overlapping layers. The eaves course (A) is stitched on, but subsequent ones are secured by hazel rods called ‘sways’ (B), fixed horizontally over the reeds to trap them and hold them firm. These sways are held down in turn by iron thatching hooks driven into the rafters beneath. Each succeeding course covers the fastenings of the previous one up to the roof ridge, which is laid with sedge (C), again secured by hazel spars or ‘liggers’. The lower edges of the sedge are finished in a decorative manner. The butt-ends of the reeds are beaten to the correct slope with a leggett, which also drives them up even more tightly under the sways.