Having scoffed at Daisy for naming her food, I now have to eat my words and introduce to you, Itchy, Scratchy and Sniffles. They might not be huffing and puffing, but my 3 little pigs are doing a good job of bulldozing the bit of ground behind Frank’s Dairy, unearthing all manner of buried scrap and creating neat piles of nettle roots that would have taken me days to pull out. I had forgotten what time wasters pigs can be; they are such characters and together with my youngest son Tom, a day can soon pass. So far he has built them a wallow, and the best of all, his ‘perfect pig massager’; a post driven into the ground with 3 old broom heads bolted to it. Watching each of them heave and scratch against it was the funniest thing and gave Tom’s shins a rest from doing the self same job.
I was out with Daisy checking her Galloways the other day. I turned to see her eyes closed with her hands to her face in what looked like a state of bliss. She looked up and caught my quizzical look, shrugged and said, ‘I like the smell of my cows’. It made me think of all the smells of our year: The first washing out on the line in the weak spring sun; Summer’s lawns and hay mown and sweet like the first of the new season’s wheat reed; muck spreading, the wheat reed turning from sweet to something nearer cat pee once wet with rain…or actual pee from the owner’s dog marking each pile of reed as his own. Soon will come the first drifts of wood-smoke from chilly chimneys, and sometimes the smell of bacon wafting up from the customer’s kitchen, with the possibility that it might be a kind Saturday sandwich coming our way. With your eyes on the work and your ears on the radio, you could be forgiven for thinking time had stood still. But then you crank yourself back to upright, and with a coffee and maybe that kind sandwich in hand you can see the day’s work, and be content.
We have been thatching from early till late, these long summer days, working over in the Quantocks on a stone and cob house that is being completely redeveloped. Although there is a deadline that has to be met as some other trades can’t start till we finish, it has been fun to work on a building site again. Usually it’s just me and Daisy on the roof debating this matter or that following whatever has just aired on Radio 4, but with the carpenter’s radio set to ‘Heart’ and plenty of banter between all of us, we’re about 5 weeks adrift of any current affairs. Except the cricket, about which the builder is passionate, so we are more up to date than perhaps we thought we needed to be on that one! There are other differences from working for a private client: Health and Safety is more of a challenge with so many more people on site, and more coming and going on the scaffold, and although part of this means keeping everything tidy, it’s not the same as trying to keep a customer’s garden from the worst ravages of feet, tools and waste reed that seems to weave it’s way through every delicate plant. We can work whatever hours we like with no fear of interrupting a weekend’s peace, although conversely that means we’ve not had a full weekend off for some while. All in all it feels good to be part of a bigger team working to a common goal, and most days have in them much laughter and plenty of tea.
The wheat reed that we were lucky enough to find in April, has been very good to work with, with very little waste..so now we watch the weather with fingers crossed for a decent harvest and the opportunity to buy in some more. Daisy also her fingers crossed for Jelly, who she has just entered into the Lurcher and Whippet race at the upcoming Yarcombe Terrier Races. Having just chased every living thing from one end of Saunton Sands to the other, Daisy is optimistic, but for my money, it’ll be a miracle if Jelly can hold a straight line to the finish. Thanks to Yarcombe young farmers and the Meyrick family for continuing with this firm favourite in our country calendar, and we shall hope to see you all there.
Listening to a Wiltshire thatcher on the radio the other day I was reminded of all the hidden treasures I have found in roofs over the years. Generations ago of course there was much to be done to ward off witches and bad spirits. The cross spars on the ridges were a defence and the shape of the peaks were to allow the spirits to exit your house swiftly. The circular buildings and roofs of the Roseland peninsula in Cornwall were built to prevent witches gathering in corners.
We have found carefully wrapped mummified cats, an owl and otters feet nailed to the A-frames. More recent stashes were a Dads Army cache of live ammunition and a hand grenade which caused the whole village to be evacuated while the bomb disposal lot dealt with it
I have found an old bed frame and a bicycle frame used as part of the roof structure, and you’ll remember last year we found a whole roof perfectly preserved beneath the newer one. And once we uncovered a whole 12 foot square room completely hidden and unknown to the client
Mostly these days it’s nests of birds, hornets and wasps we find. The Wiltshire thatcher hides a time capsule in each of his roofs as I used to and maybe I should again, the magic of a fragment of time, caught in a box for someone else to find.
The month to date has very much been the month of the motor. With my VW Transporter parked up in Wellington waiting for a tiny part that always seems to be, “…2 weeks away, mate, it’s in a factory in Germany”, my options for getting to work and moving reed to and from the yard are poles apart. I’ve got ‘The Old Girl’, a wonderful Bedford J-Type tipper, perfect in every way for transporting reed on a dry day, except that I need a lollipop person to get me across the A30 as there is little hope of achieving 0-60 in anything less than ten minutes, or in fact achieving 60mph at all! At the other end of the scale Daisy has a super little car, bought for her eldest to learn to drive in. It’s comfortable, nippy and does 50 to the gallon, but obviously can’t carry any materials….so every day involves a juggle of keys and cars, from A to B, then B to C and back again. Some vital tool always seems to be in a different vehicle, in the wrong place…I can’t wait to get my van back! Meantime Daisy found herself musing on a very modern problem; with one daughter joining Extinction Rebellion, and the other starting to learn to drive. We seem to live lives of constant conflict and compromise. We comfort ourselves from 9 till 5 that the work we do and the materials we use have very low environmental impact. The reed we have just bought is grown with low or no inputs; the steel and twine are recyclable, the old reed compostable …… and then we return home in our combustion engines to a meal that seems to always involve half a dozen plastic packets. Mind you after a day trip to Dartmoor, Daisy’s steaks are about to arrive in much better packaging…and on cloven hooves, in the form of 3 Galloway store cattle; ‘Tips’ is all white with black ear tips and magnificent eyelashes; ‘Red’ is a nice little red heifer and ‘MandM’ is Black with a white patch. I have pointed out it might be a mistake to name your future food…we might end up vegetarian after all!
I am sorry we missed last month’s article, but our attention was suddenly diverted elsewhere. We were drifting along quite happily in the cycle of our thatching life; first visiting our reed supplier to choose the reed that suits our needs and style best; then working weeks pass as we thatch a house before visiting the supplier again. Just after Christmas we thought we’d better just check and see what was available for the next but one job which is wheat reed. Conversations were had; there was a vague sense that there might be a bit of a shortage; push came to shove, and before we knew it…. all the wheat reed was spoken for and there wasn’t a straw left to be had.
Our current re-thatch was, mercifully, water reed, but we still needed combed wheat reed for ridging, and a fair old amount for the next job after, which is wheat from eave to peak. Generally, replacing one type of thatch material for another, is at best frowned upon, and will often be challenged by planning, heritage and conservation authorities. There is an increasing weight given to the authenticity, integrity and significance of a building within the wider setting of it’s place in the landscape, in it’s community , and as affected by the history of agriculture, skills and styles particular to that area.
So swapping one for another…not an option. There followed a right old scurry of a couple of days, with both of us on the phone; a bespectacled Daisy peering at Google maps, searching out new suppliers; a day out on the road, meeting some new people, with reed of various types and conditions; some of last year’s Aquila, a bit short for us; some N59, longer but grey with age on one side of the bale. The common problem for all but one of the stores we saw was too many rats. They chomp through bundle after bundle taking off the ears of each stem. That’s not a huge problem for ridging, as the ears get cut off anyway, but for the main coat work it’s the ears that help anchor each piece of straw on the roof.
All the people we met were really helpful, and certainly useful to know for the next harvest…but the last visit of the day was nothing short of awesome. This chap had vast farm buildings, almost empty by his own standards; but still with stack after neatly piled stack of every kind of wheat reed; Widgeon, N59, Huntsman, Red Standard, Square Head Master together with Aquila and Triticale. Each bale was neatly trimmed, each bundle exactly as it’s neighbour. Heaven.
He was willing to sell us what we needed…thank goodness, so we returned home relieved and maybe a little gladdened knowing that the love for a job beautifully done can be found anywhere if you look hard enough.
We are off to a late start with our wheat reed re-thatch as we had a few ridges and repairs to finish before winter really sets in, but we are settling into it now. I’m content as I like working with combed wheat reed the most. Your hands are constantly working it, teasing each stem to sit well by it’s neighbour, then binding each handful on the roof with a few stems of the last, pulling them across and fixing with twisted hazel spars.
To begin with though, we must tie in the eaves wads. As with slate or tile, the eaves must be made to withstand all the weather from all the roof, making sure there is no water ingress to the timbers beneath and shielding the upper parts of the walls. Each bundle of wheat reed is divided into 5 or so ‘handfuls’, roughly 5″ in diameter when held tightly between both hands. Each handful is worked to separate the stems, making them lie evenly throughout and to knock the stems all down to the end, then tied with a few spare stems just beneath the ears of wheat. Each individual handful is then tied tightly onto the timbers of the roof, one beside the other, ensuring that the eave stays in place for the life of the thatch. By tying on each one, we also ensure that if a rodent does chew through a string it will only mean that one small piece of the eave is dislodged, rather than a larger section.
These days we tie on with baler twine, currently available in bright pink. Before the 1950’s a hemp string fortified with tar was used, and we still often find pieces of it amongst the old base layers of thatch that we thatch over. Earlier ties would have been made out of whatever was to hand, often soaked willow withies, that would tighten as they dried.
As I look over the scaffold I see that Daisy has made a new alliance with ‘Sticky’, the client’s dog. Looking like a smaller blacker version of Stitch, and lying very comfortably in the back of my van, (on my coat!), I sense that the Year of the Dog is not quite done, and spring may yet bring the chaos of a new puppy.
In the meantime, let me wish you peaceful season’s greetings.
Oh, and one more thing, non-believers of Churchinford Village Shop…..I can make my own puff pastry, topping off a very fine pie…it’s all in the folding!