Magdalen Road at night

Magdalen Road at night
December 2010

Thursday, 21 January 2016

How many different bonds are to be found in St Leonard’s?

Have you ever noticed …
how many different bonds are to be found in St Leonard’s?

“The name’s Bond, Stretcher Bond”.  Somehow, I doubt whether a catch-phrase like that would make anyone’s fortune, even when announced with Daniel Craig’s voice.  Instead, and at no charge at all, can I invite you to look at the way that bricks are arranged in the walls of houses and gardens in the neighbourhood. 

“Bond” is the technical term for the pattern of bricks in walls.  Not all walls use the same pattern.  For many years, British bricks were about 9 inches long, and about half that wide; the thickness was more variable.  Metric bricks are a little smaller.  The long side of a brick is sometimes called a stretcher.  But the important feature of almost all building bricks is that they are twice as long as they are wide – just like the ubiquitous Lego brick with eight studs in two rows of four. 

So how do you build a wall with bricks?  You have foundations, and then lay the bricks in successive courses.  After that it depends on whether you want the wall to be one brick thick, or two.  Most houses built in the last three or four generations have cavity walls, so that the outer bricks form a wall that is one brick thick.  On the other hand, garden walls are generally twice as thick.  And that means that some of the bricks are arranged to connect the two sides of the wall, so that those bricks have an end or header, rather than a stretcher, showing. 

You could build a wall one brick thick by stacking one brick on top of the one below, without any overlaps.  Only mortar would connect adjacent stacks, and the result – with a pattern known as a stacked bond – would be insecure.  (A few years ago, the BBC investigated the strength of Lego bricks that were stacked like this; they discovered that the bottom brick would be deformed if it supported the weight of a pile of Lego over 2 miles high, but experts from Legoland estimated that a pile of single bricks about 10 or 11 feet high would be unstable.)  So, for strength and stability, walls are built with courses which overlap each other.  In the Magdalen Road village, the post-war buildings generally use a stretcher (or running) bond.  That means that the bricks in one course overlap the ones below by half – as if the Lego bricks in one course were connected to the two below by four studs each.  The bricks in the first, third, fifth and all odd-numbered courses look the same.  Those in the alternate courses are shifted half a brick length to the side.  Around the cedar tree in St Leonards Road, there is an interesting variation of this, with the ends of the bricks facing outwards; that’s an end bond, also known as a header bond.  It is strong and allows the wall to curve.

It is in the garden walls around the neighbourhood that there is more variety to be found.  The need to have bricks running from one side to the other presents builders with a variety of patterns.  The simplest patterns have a course of bricks in the end bond style, followed by one or more courses in stretcher bond, then an end bond course, and so on.  The bricks in the stretcher bond courses are fixed to three below them.  (Think Lego again; the stretcher bond brick is fastened to two studs from one end bond brick, four studs from the next, and two from the third.  There’s a matching row on the other side.)  The number of courses laid in the stretcher form varies.  Around St Leonard’s you can find examples with one, three and five.  (Even numbers look less attractive, and are rarely used.)  If there is one stretcher course, it is generally known as English bond.  With three courses, that’s English garden bond, and with five courses, that’s common bond.  More complicated than these bonds are those known as Flemish bonds.  These are very attractive and also widespread in the neighbourhood.  One course of bricks is laid, Flemish style, with alternating stretchers and headers.  Then the next course is the same, with stretchers over the headers below, and vice versa.  The course above that is like the first.  There are plenty of examples in Magdalen Road.  A variation of this is to have some courses of stretcher bond before the next course in Flemish style. 

Belair, in the grounds of County Hall, has a south wall in Flemish Bond.  The modern wall to the right in the picture, is unusual in having four rows of stretchers between the lines of ends.
Before the coming of the railways, which brought mass-produced bricks to all corners of the country, there were marked regional variations in the preferred style of building.  Flemish bond is widespread in the south, and English garden in the north. 

This wall in Archibald Road is an example of English Bond
There are a few walls around us which have mixed construction, showing the need to rebuild or extend over the generations; differing bonds and differing bricks can identify them.  Most of these are in the older streets, but not all – Rivermead Road has one example.

Exeter’s oldest brick building, the Customs House on the Quay, has very irregular brickwork; maybe the builders were unfamiliar with the new material.  But the small chimney on the left hand side, added later, is mostly in Flemish bond.  That’s the King’s Pipe, where contraband tobacco was burnt.  Maybe James Bond’s predecessors had a hand in apprehending the tobacco smugglers?

Printed in St Leonard's
Neighbourhood News, January-February 2016