3 August 2001

REED:ALLABOUTIT…

IN the winter Eric Edwards cuts reeds on the Norfolk Broads. Hes the last of the marsh managers but in the summer and early autumn, its sedge, a smaller type of reed that grows to just over 60cm (2ft). And it is cut while its green.

"Thatchers use it to make the ridges of the roofs," says Eric. "Some thatchers use straw, but sedge looks the best."

"When I started, the craft of the reed cutting was already in decline, although plenty of the old hands were still around to pass on their skills. Then it looked like thatching was going to die out. Now people have learned the old trade and its become something of a boom industry. People have realised that thatch is actually a very good roofing material. Its warm and a good Norfolk thatch will last 80 years."

Erics marsh covers over 121ha (300 acres) on the river Ant, near Ludham. Working with a large scythe he cuts the sedge to make a bunch which is usually about 75cm (30in) in circumference. After cutting the sedge its combed out using a reed comb, a tool made of wood with 6in nails as its teeth.

The cleaned bunches are stacked on the edge of the marsh, as near to the dyke as possible, and are taken out in a traditional marsh boat called a reed lighter. The boat is powered by a long pole which is pushed down into the mud to propel the boat. "Its called quanting after the pole which is a quant."

Sedge is cut on a two-year cycle and most of his sedge and reed is sold locally. "A scythe is still much better than the mechanical cutter when the water is high so its not just sentiment that keeps me doing it the old way. Im also proud of the fact that Im one of the few cutters – possibly the last – who knows how to mow sedge and reed by hand," says Eric, who makes his own tools.

"It can be lonely work but I enjoy the peace and beauty of the area, and cutting by hand is less disturbing to the wildlife."