All chaff and no wheat!

A Combed Wheat Reed roof…

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.

When down hill is an uphill struggle…

Over the Christmas break I was persuaded to go skiing for the first time, in the French Alps. I was really looking forward to this; the mountains, the snow, the skiing…I mean seriously…how hard can it be? Let me tell you, virtually impossible! Relying on my seasons as a youth in the Blackdown hills, tying a plank of wood to each foot and sliding down Moor Lane, or achieving probably the fastest speeds known to man on an old feed sack stuffed with straw….does not, it turns out, provide you with the necessary skills to ski.
Things that have stuck with me from childhood; claustrophobia after getting trapped in a sleeping bag; a fear of cable cars after watching that James Bond film and a perfectly reasonable fear of heights, that the years thatching has just about held in check; all came back to haunt me on the first day as I waited in a  tight, shuffling queue to sit in a glorified bench, swinging at impossible heights, with the said planks of wood attached to multiple feet.
Having survived that, all previous phobias were entirely dispelled by a new one: Skiing….or more precisely, not being able to STOP skiing..or turn…or in fact have any control over the direction and speed of my feet. I have to confess, I was absolutely terrified. It would be equal to driving to the top of Corfe hill, removing your steering wheel and the brakes and setting off downhill to Taunton…it’s not going to end well.
Thousands of people, and Dasiy and her youngest would set out every day to do this, with varying amounts of skill and daring; faces shining with joy and talking about how great it was….what is wrong with these people? All I can say is, to all of you who ski or snowboard; to Eddie the Eagle; to those Ski Sunday heroes;  to the Sochi Olympians…I have the utmost respect.
Would I go again? Well the mountains were stunning, and I’m not going to  let this beat me.
Pretty much as the plane landed, Daisy and her youngest were talking in earnest about their next great adventure…hunting for a new hound. I had thought this might take some time, but in about the same time as it took Daisy to learn to ski, 2 and a half days (not one for gloating), a new hound was found; a lurcher puppy, speckled black, white and brown, which they named Jelly-bean.
Having just found Daisy cross legged on her kitchen floor, with the pup curled, sound asleep in her lap, and Daisy wearing that happy, helpless expression that says, ‘I might be a bit late into work today’….I sense I might be thatching on my lonesome for a day or two!

Eaves, dogs and pastry…


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!

Algae…or slime at Uplyme


After a month away from thatching helping Daisy with her loft conversion, I am reluctantly back in charge again. It was nice to not be the boss for a while and to see Daisy finish a project that she’s been holding in her head for several years. So now her youngest has a bit more space to grow into;  some new style insulation that made the roof look for a while like it was destined for the next space mission should keep the whole house warmer; better eaves and new ridge vents will keep the loft properly ventilated….all of which could have been achieved with a nice new thatch I think; I’m not sure Daisy would agree…or her neighbours come to that!
A few of our clients have had problems with algal growth on their roofs of late. Algae will populate a surface in damp conditions, creating and living within a gel that holds moisture, thus maintaining an environment to suit itself. On a thatched roof the algae will coat the ends of the reed, almost gluing it together and creeping across an area until it is covered completely.  After the unusually long dry summer we have just had, any algal mass will have dried to a crust and either split apart, forming rifts in the surface of the thatch, or falling away from the thatch and taking the weaker ends of the reeds with it.
When summers are consistently dry and winters cold and frosty, algal growth is much inhibited but with increasingly warmer winters and wetter summers, conditions for algae are about perfect.
At present, there aren’t any treatments that are effective. We can shear off the surface, which will make it less unsightly, but the algae will soon regrow so it is not a long lasting solution. Once the rain returns, any rifts formed will likely soon rehydrate, but keep an eye on them and ask your thatcher for advice if you have any concerns.
With a wheat reed re-thatch to start soon, I spoke to my supplier to see how the harvest has gone this year. It’s fairly good news as although the wheat grew a little shorter, the stems are thicker and therefore more durable. We will all have to adjust our technique to suit the reed, but that keeps us on our toes and gives the apprentice something new to learn.

Our Thatching Life, featuring Ferrari the Thatcher, Daisy his boss and a 3 legged dog called Lilith…

So it’s all change for August: A slate roof and Daisy is the boss, mainly because it’s her own roof and there is a good deal of carpentry involved. Over the years I have seen a mixture of anxiety and resignation in the faces of Daisy’s family as her idea of redecorating often involves hearing her say, “Oh it’ll be fine…we’ll just take down this wall and build that there and…”, where perhaps they were just thinking a pot of paint and a brush!
This time one of her daughters will be pleased as the new roof will create enough space for a mezzanine sleeping deck, meaning that the now tiny bedroom below can house a grown-up sized wardrobe and a desk.
As I write, my sister’s 3 legged dog has just run through the house, launched herself onto a polished dining room chair, tipping it into mine and landing her squarely on my lap, looking very pleased with herself. We are looking after her for 2 weeks and the sweet, quiet, reserved little rescue dog that arrived has now settled in and turned into a bit of a character…which Daisy seems to find highly entertaining. She and the girls are enjoying having a hound around tho’, and part of the pressure on finishing her own roof in good time is that they are hoping to get a new puppy once it’s done. Just one bit of chaos at a time!
All the while we watch the weather, hoping for a good wheat reed harvest as our next roof is a traditional Devon long house. If it’s going to rain, let it be either side of Daisy’s roof and gentle enough to keep the wheat standing.rhubarb g and canada dry

Our Thatching Life…


Well there’s been plenty of thatching and plenty of life this last month. Spring sprung straight into summer, and we have been thatching like demons ever since, making good headway on Mrs W’s Rawridge roof. Luckily the house is only 20 years old, so the roof structure is in very good order.
We finally have ‘The Old Girl’ on the road…our Bedford J-type. Not the fastest, or the quietest, but definitely the classiest way to deliver the reed…and a lot easier for clearing the old reed away. She still needs a bit of loving care on her bodywork, and Daisy will make some sidings out of chestnut when she can
Daisy has met her match in the tidying up campaign, as Mrs W. is without doubt, the tidiest customer we have ever had….that is if I still have a Daisy. After dancing madly to some Two Tone at the York Inn’s Vinyl night accompanied by a very funky medallion man (can’t imagine who that was!), she discovered that her dodgy knee bone was indeed joined to the hip bone, which went into spasm…and she’s not managed to walk let alone work since. Luckily she lives opposite the very brilliant Corrie, who’ll have her fixed up in no time.
It’s funny what you find you have in common with people: For several years I’ve been following the career of Carlos Acosta, a Cuban ballet dancer. Now I’ve not generally given ballet much of my time or interest, but he caught my attention once as I flicked through the channels on the TV, dancing with so much power and passion, I had to stop and watch. He now has his own dance company, and Daisy and I booked tickets to see their debut at the Wales Millenium Centre and took her Dad as well…turns out that we could have whisked Mrs W. off to Wales with us, as she’s a bit of a fan too. Wonder if we could warm up each day with a barre work out on the scaffold….that should sort Daisy’s hip out!

Spring sprung itself right into summer…

Ian and Jenny's...the home run.At last! And we have been working like demons ever since, keeping pace with the green mantling of the land, adding our own finishing touches to Ian and Jenny’s roof.

Once the ridge is on, we roll out 3 foot of galvanised chicken wire along each side of it, fixing it to the ridge with hazel spars and twisting together any excess wire so that it fits to the shape of the roof exactly. To finish the wiring, we twist the top wires of each side together, which like drawing up a zip, pulls both sides tight together.
Next is sweeping and dressing. Every stem has a leaf around it; loose, dry and easily pulled away by the birds for nesting; so with stiff brooms we start at the top and sweep the coatwork clean. Finally we use our ‘leggetts’, the aluminium paddles with a honeycomb surface, to tap back any high points leaving the coat smooth, flat and shining gold in the sun.
Finally we extricate ourselves from our customers gardens with ‘The Big Tidy Up’. Daisy’s attention to detail comes into it’s own as she conducts a fingertip search through the flowerbeds for any evidence of thatching work. Once the scaffolding comes down, we return to dress the eaves, which may have had scaffold poles in the way, and then that really is it…. after every kind of weather and the nicest lunches made for us every day…we draw a breath, take stock, order materials, mend and patch anyone who is leaking….and then it’s on to the next one.