The Work of a Master Thatcher

The largest group of thatched cottages in Staffordshire lies just up the road from Lichfield at Alrewas. There are eighteen, out of a total of 300 country-wide. Most of the audience were surprised by this statement from David Wood, whose excellent talk featured in our May meeting slot. In a departure from the the usual illustrated presentation, David arrived with the tools of his trade plus a small portable thatched roof! By the end of the evening's entertainment, we had learned just enough to be able to cast a critical eye over any thatched roof!

David, a Handsacre resident, was fascinated by the art of thatching from an early age. Whilst still a young teenager, he persuaded the local thatcher to employ him at weekends as a helper. Weekends soon turned into school holidays too. Then, on leaving school at sixteen, he was taken on as an apprentice. He served his apprenticeship for seven years and was subsequently accepted into the Master Thatchers' Association. When he became a member, he recalled that there were 900 master thatchers in the UK; now the number has grown to 1500. The newer members tend to be in their twenties and thirties, with a significant proportion of former military personnel, both men and women. The apprenticeship still requires five years training before acceptance, which includes a practical thatching test.

Thatching is now usually carried out using water reeds, whilst a wheat straw capping wraps over the roof ridge line. Straw was used originally for the whole roof, since it came free as a by product of harvesting. Older varieties of wheat grew taller and had a smaller seed head than modern varieties. Whilst traditional harvesting and manual threshing provided long, undamaged, stalks of straw suitable for thatching; modern wheat strains have shorter stalks which are damaged by the mechanical harvesting process. So, in the past, straw came free and the farm workers could use it to thatch their own cottages. Now, water reeds, grown to a high specification, are the preferred material. David's arrive in bundles from the River Tay, where growing conditions are ideal. The water there is part fresh, part salty, the latter giving the reeds their strength. Norfolk reeds, originally much used, have been declining in quality over the last few years.

So, how thick does the thatch need to be? In the days of straw thatching, the answer was about 20 inches; whereas with reed thatch, a depth of 12 inches is all that is required. Reed thatch will last 60 to 70 years before renewal, whilst straw thatch will last a maximum of 25 years. Often, partial replacement can occur as an alternative to a total re-thatch. In the past, straw thatch would often be laid straight on the existing thatch. David recalled working on a cottage near Atherstone which had 22 layers of thatch, no less than 8 feet deep. The oldest thatch was probably, he estimated, over 400 years old. So when you see a "chocolate box cottage", with tiny windows peeping out of deep thatch, the likelihood is that it has had new thatch laid on old over many hundreds of years, a practice that David wouldn't necessarily recommend!

David concluded by turning to his demonstration thatched roof. We learned how to tie the thatch bundles to the rafters, blackberry briar being the preferred material in the past. Cast iron rods of various lengths are punched into the bales to secure them and hazel rods used for the stick-work. That is, the elaborate patterns which adorn the straw below the roof ridge line. Each pattern is unique to each thatcher. However, David does not make, and does not like, fancy straw creatures on roof ridges; but he reluctantly installs them if the customer so requests! David is happy to thatch other items. Wishing wells, bird boxes, dovecotes and lych gates are all in his repertoire.

A raconteur, David shared with us stories of his experiences as a thatcher. There does appear to be a public fascination with thatching. Wherever he is working, he always draws an audience who are ready with comments and questions, sometimes to the frustration of a thatcher perched halfway up a roof! It is good to see the skill thriving as a growing number of thatchers carry on this fascinating work. However, if you want David to re-thatch your cottage, put your name down quickly - there is a three year waiting list!

Roger Hockney
May 2017