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Archive for October 2009

Flemish Bond – Bricks and Blood

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You have to admire the quality of Belgian bricklaying; it’s so neat and smart in the modern buildings. We have just returned from Brugge, having learnt not to call it Bruges, and the houses in the suburbs are a delight. I think the slightly smaller size of brick than one normally sees in the UK adds to their charm and the subtly different design features like the pitch of the roofs and shapes of the first-floor windows are appealing for their novelty. This is coming from someone whose previous knowledge of Belgium was drawn largely from Asterix chez les Belges and Caesar’s The Conquest of Gaul; both sources a little out of date.wBruggeSteppedGables
It’s in the largely unspoilt mediaeval centre of Brugge that the senses get their main treat. The buildings are tall and narrow by modern standards, their steep roofs typically terminated by a stepped gable. The cobbled streets resound to the clip-clop of horse-drawn carriages and the sunlight glints off the pretty little canals that weave between the streets and under fine arched bridges. Step across the threshold of any chocolatier and your sense of smell is satisfied. This is literally and metaphorically a chocolate-box town.
Where the brickwork is not rendered you can see at least four different styles of bricklaying. The diagram below shows three common ways of laying bricks. The cheapest option is to use what is termed Stretcher Bond. This is the technique of laying courses of bricks one above the other so that only the long sides or stretchers are visible. Each course is laid so that the joint between two adjacent bricks falls in the centre of the brick below, preserving the strength and support of the structure. This is relatively cheap because a wall can be built which is only one half-brick thick. This is alright for cladding a breeze-block or timber-frame building for decorative purposes, but wouldn’t be used for load-bearing in a building of any significant height. 
Brick Bonds
In the English Bond, a course of stretchers is succeeded by a course of ends, followed by the next course of stretchers. Successive courses are arranged so that the joint between two bricks never lines up with a joint in the row above or below.
The Flemish Bond is slightly different and essentially comprises a repeating pattern of one and a half bricks. Again, The same rule governing the alignment of joints is followed; you never have one joint immediately above another.
With the English and Flemish Bonds, a double thickness of wall can be built as each brick presenting its end to the world can stretch across to an adjacent course.
The fourth pattern that can be seen in the old buildings of Brugge comprises an erratic mixture of the previous three described here.
We were a little surprised to see that the English Bond was more frequently used than the Flemish Bond. For instance, the magnificent church of Notre Dame, which houses the only Michelangelo Madonna and Child outside Italy, makes extensive use of English Bond.
There are buildings using Flemish Bond in Brugge, but it wasn’t until Day 3 of our short break in Flanders when we visited Ieper (or Ypres in the French) that we saw the most striking and painstaking expression of Flemish Bond. This was in the Menin Gate, a lovingly built and maintained memorial to the British and Empire men who were missing or lost in action during The Great War. A small example of the brickwork is shown here:

In Ieper, Flemish Bond takes on a new meaning. The extreme madness of the First World War is evident everywhere, in the trenches of Sanctuary Wood, on Hill 62, in the museum inside the Cloth Hall of Ieper, and in the city itself which was completely destroyed and rebuilt. 

Ieper Market Square

One cannot help but be moved by the 60,000 names carved into the marble of the Menin Gate and by the 12,000 headstones in Tyne Cot cemetery, especially if you imagine each soldier to be standing there in uniform with full kit. I’m not taking sides; German youth was also squandered in the power struggle between the old empires. But I did, somehow, feel the bond between Britain and Belgium, created by the mingling of spilt blood in a common cause. TyneCot It happened in a strange way. I was standing under the arch of the Menin Gate, looking across the road, when a girl in her late teens came cycling quickly and happily through – it’s downhill into town. She probably does this every day and I wondered at that moment how often she thought about the meaning of the memorial. For less than a second our eyes met, and I could see she asked herself why I was there and I could tell that she knew. Instantaneously, we shared the thought, as those men had shared the trenches and the cigarettes and the dying. Flemish Bond is sometimes made with bricks and sometimes it’s made with blood.

Copyright © Colin Hazlehurst, 2009

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