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The disappearing art of reed cutting on the Norfolk Broads

Reedcutter Wally Mason, 75, at work on the marshes at Haddiscoe Island. Picture: Denise Bradley
Reedcutter Wally Mason, 75, at work on the marshes at Haddiscoe Island. Picture: Denise Bradley

Every winter Wally Mason returns to the marshes – as much a part of the landscape as the rivers and birds he loves so much

Wally was just five years old when he cut his first bundle of reeds on the Broads.

‘My dad gave me a little willow stick and put the blade of a little knife in a notch at the top. That was my first cutter. I could cut two bunches of reeds in a day,’ said Wally.

That was more than 70 years ago and Wally is still cutting reeds on the Broads.

Great British Life: Norfolk reed, cut by reedcutter Wally Mason on the marshes at Haddiscoe Island. Picture: Denise BradleyNorfolk reed, cut by reedcutter Wally Mason on the marshes at Haddiscoe Island. Picture: Denise Bradley

‘I still make my own hook or cutting tool. Now I cut about 40 bundles of reeds in a day,’ said Wally, of Rockland St Mary, between Norwich and Loddon. He was born here too, close to the river, at the start of the 1947 reed-cutting season.

His Norfolk accent is as broad as the wide wintry skies he labours beneath.

‘I love coming down here in the peace and quiet,’ said Wally.

We are out on Haddiscoe Island, that expanse of river, marsh and grazing meadow where water, land and sky bleed together to a soundscape of wind-blown reeds and birds.

A buzzard stoops low, perhaps following prey through the reeds. ‘Isn’t that marvellous!’ exclaims Wally.

‘You see short-eared owls, lots of otters, bitterns. And you hear their boom.

Great British Life: Reedcutter Wally Mason, 75, at work on the marshes at Haddiscoe Island. Picture: Denise BradleyReedcutter Wally Mason, 75, at work on the marshes at Haddiscoe Island. Picture: Denise Bradley

‘Hearing the bitterns boom makes you feel good. I used to hear nightingales, but everything is disappearing. I haven’t seen a chaffinch for years, even thrushes are rare. There used to be so many chaffinches and thrushes.’

Every year, from December until early May, when the weather is right, he treks down to the marshes to cut reeds on patches of riverside land at Rockland and here at Haddiscoe. He rents the right to cut from the landowner, taking a series of tracks from the main road, deep into a landscape of drainage dykes, reedbeds and the occasional crumbling mill.

He learned his craft from his father and passed on the skill, of how and where and when to cut and bundle Norfolk reed, to his three sons, Drew and twins Lee and Luke. They are all in their 30s now and he and his wife Lorraine have six grandchildren too.

 

‘I am the last one on the Broads cutting reed by hand. The last one in Britain I should think,’ said Wally. He hopes the reed-cutting tradition will continue through the generations but is not ready to hang up his home-made cutter yet.

‘Every year, I always come back to it. I have done different work, mainly farm work, and I can’t wait to get back to the reeds,’ he said.

The season starts when that year’s green reeds of summer have turned pale and brittle. Wally works around the weather and the tides. He can’t cut in the rain, or when the water is high. ‘I cut reeds while the sun shines!’ he said.

He stops each year before the birds nest.

‘I’m glad when it’s finished each year and I can’t wait to get back to it,’ said Wally. ‘Out here, you are living; you have time to think and look and listen and live. You are in the middle of nature.

Great British Life: Reedcutter Wally Mason, 75, at work on the marshes at Haddiscoe Island. Picture: Denise BradleyReedcutter Wally Mason, 75, at work on the marshes at Haddiscoe Island. Picture: Denise Bradley

‘Every time I see the marsh harriers and kites I still have to stop and look. I like seeing the little birds too, the kingfishers, the blackbirds.

‘One of the loveliest things to see is a murmuration.’

For 70 years Wally has cut reeds with a simple blade, tied to a pole.

‘When I started there were still wherries carrying sugar beet on the river,’ said Wally. ‘We would brew up river water for tea. It’s the best cup of tea you could have in your life!’

He left school at 14 and, a year later, worked through one of the coldest winters on record.

'The rivers were frozen. The ice was two feet-thick and it lasted for around two months. When it started breaking up I went out cutting because we needed the money. I was rowing along the river when my boat reared up on to ice like an iceberg. I thought I was going in and under. I have never been so frightened!

Great British Life: Reedcutter Wally Mason and his thatcher son, Luke, with some of the reeds Wally has cut which Luke is using on the roof of a barn in Rockland St Mary. Picture: Denise BradleyReedcutter Wally Mason and his thatcher son, Luke, with some of the reeds Wally has cut which Luke is using on the roof of a barn in Rockland St Mary. Picture: Denise Bradley

‘You can also get tipped out of your boat if something comes along too fast, and you can lose a day’s work, all the cut bundles.’

But in the spring the boats bring company too. ‘Every cruiser that comes by, they all take pictures, so I don’t know how many pictures I’m in, hundreds and thousands I should think,’ said Wally. ‘Sometimes they throw me a can of beer!’

These floating passers-by might not know they are seeing Britain’s last traditional reed cutter, but they recognise and appreciate the timeless atmosphere of the scene.

Norfolk reed has been prized by thatchers for centuries. Now it is often cut by machine but Wally insists the old ways are the best – especially on the precarious riverside patch he is cutting.

Springing over a low bank and into the marshes, nimble as a water deer, he wades through rustling head-high reeds and lifts his cutter, swinging it low through stems which fall into a long, neat bundle against his body. ‘I’m the last one to do it by hand,’ said Wally. ‘Cutting by hand is cleaner. You can shake all the debris out as you go, as you gather them into a bundle.

‘And Norfolk reed is the best. Thatch made with Norfolk reeds can last 70 years.’

Great British Life: Thatchers Luke Mason, left, and Gary Stokes, with some of the reeds cut by Luke's reedcutter dad, Wally, thatching in Rockland St Mary. Picture: Denise BradleyThatchers Luke Mason, left, and Gary Stokes, with some of the reeds cut by Luke's reedcutter dad, Wally, thatching in Rockland St Mary. Picture: Denise Bradley

Wally’s reed has been used to thatch houses, barns and churches all over the country and this autumn he was thrilled to supply reed for a beautiful old house in his own village of Rockland St Mary.

Thatcher Gary Stokes, who runs GJ Stokes of Rockland St Mary, has been thatching with Norfolk reeds and sedge for more than 25 years. And one of the skilled thatchers who works for him is Wally’s son Luke, who not only cuts reed, but sees it, shining golden from the newly-restored roof in the main village street.

‘I go up and down that street and it makes me feel a proud man,’ said Wally.



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