Long days, dogs and reed…

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.

Hidden in the wheat ears and lost in time…

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.

Limited vehicular access…


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!

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.

Yikes!

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…

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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.