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!
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.
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!
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.
As a rule, thatching is a relatively peaceful craft; only the muted thumps of the Leggett dressing the coatwork to break the silence, or at worst the thud of a bundle against the floor to jostle all the stems down to the end. It’s a craft with a steady pace, not frantic with excitement; no high adrenaline rush….except just occasionally you do discover something extraordinary.
When we strip a roof of it’s old coatwork, we are first looking to see what lies beneath; usually old coatwork still thick with moss that’s perhaps several hundred years old; old timbers mostly cut straight from hedgerows,or perhaps much newer, measured and orderly and easier to find for fixing to. There was a regrettable fashion for plastic sheeting, which prevents the thatch from breathing, luckily we don’t find that often now. We are not often surprised by what we find, however this roof we are on now revealed not one, but three complete roofs, like a nest of Russian dolls.
The first and oldest is of a fairly shallow pitch and still has most of it’s thatch on, including the ridge. I think that perhaps this first roof must have needed renewing around WW2, but that not being possible a whole new roof of timbers and tin was put over the top. The tin has gone but you can see the dark and light tones on the battens where the corrugated tin hits and misses. For the third roof, the tin was removed but yet another set of rafters and battens have been constructed over the second set, steepening the pitch, and giving us the foundation of our new thatch.
Assailed by rain and snow in this last month we have raced a little more than usual to hide away these layers of life under a new golden coat, safe and secret until the next time.