Marshland reed cutter talks about his dying art

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

September 21, 1993|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,London Bureau

TOAD HOLE COTTAGE, LUDHAM, England -- The long quiet of the marshland in the Norfolk Broads is broken only by the sigh of wind in the reeds and the soft snick of Eric Edwards' scythe as it sweeps through the sedge.

"I like mowing sedge with the scythe," Mr. Edwards says. "It cuts lovely and clean."

Late summer and early autumn are the time of the cutting of the sedge. He'll cut Norfolk reed beginning the day after Christmas and continue into April.

"It's steady all day with the scythe," he says. "There's no noise, is there? Just the swish, a lovely sort of swish of the scythe."

He's a stocky man, 53 years old, wearing turned-down waders, jeans, a sweat shirt and a denim hat. His face is as open and inviting and as cheerful as an apple dumpling.

The sedge he cuts will crown a roof thatched with Norfolk reed.

"It's the cappin' that goes on top, really," he says. "Just the top bit is sedge. Sedge bends. Reed doesn't."

The thatched roof cottage is the very symbol of solid old rural England. A well-thatched cottage looks homey and cozy and Anglo-Saxon and pretty much as if a very thick, tightly woven plush rug had been thrown over it.

Norfolk reed is said to be the finest thatching material in Britain, maybe the world.

"All I know is the thatch on How Hill lasted about 70 years," Mr. Edwards says. "I would think it was cut from this marsh. The last thatch was. I helped cut it."

How Hill is a big old mansion just beyond Toad Hole. Fifty thousand to sixty thousand thatched buildings like How Hill, from barns to churches, survive in Britain.

"Last year I cut 5,000 bunches of reed on my own and about 4,000 bunches of sedge," Mr. Edwards says.

"You cut for an hour," he says, "then you tie for an hour. In a good day you'd do a hundred bunches. You never tie reed wet. You don't want to cut reed wet.

Thatching roofs remains a reasonably thriving craft in Britain. But reed cutting is a dying art. It's hard, cold, wet work even with a machine. Youngsters don't want to do it. The men who cut reed now are all aging.

"I think in ten years' time, the scythe will be gone," Mr. Edwards says. "That's my opinion."

Mr. Edwards is one of the few marshmen still working on The Broads. He's the official marshman of The Broads Authority, which administers The Broads, preserving "Britain's finest wetland" as a national park. The Broads lie in Norfolk and Sussex counties, where the coast of England bulges into the North Sea )) opposite Holland.

The Broads are a magical landscape of misty mornings and towering coastal skies, slow-moving rivers and shallow lakes, wide marshes and low fens, cattle feeding on marsh meadows drained by windmills and ponds home to cormorants and grebes and Canada geese. But a broad, strictly speaking, is a wide pond or shallow lake formed by old peat diggings.

When he talks about his life as a marshman on The Broads, Eric Edwards speaks with the accents of Norfolk and the lilt of poetry.

"Beeu'a'full, in-nit?" he says, poling across the River Ant to the nature reserve where he cuts sedge. He calls his pole a "quant."

"You're at How Hill," he says. He points up river. "That goes to Barton Broad, and that way is Ludham Bridge.

"This is where I've worked since 1967. The old marshmen taught me.

"You cut sedge green. Reed is cut when it's golden. The wind 'n' frost take all the leaves off, and the reed goes golden. The feather is always on.

"It's beautiful to see someone cut reed."

He can get 100 bunches of reed on the boat he quants about 30 yards across the Ant. He packs 300 bunches on his traditional wide-beamed, flat-bottom reed lighter: "all stacked up beautiful like a honey comb."

"It's a work of art to stack a load of reed. It looks nice in the lighter," he says.

"I know most of the Ant. It's a very attractive little river, isn't it? I very rarely go off the Ant."

Children visit his marshman's shed, which he's lined with reed to show off his collection with a bit of wetland stagecraft. He tells them about his work, about the tools and about the life of the marsh.

"Be a shame if it all goes," he says. "The children would never see it."

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