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.

The archaeology of a roof…

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.

A Jackdaws guide to un-thatching a roof…

Several customers old and new have been having trouble with bird damage this winter. It can happen a lot at this time of year as the hollow stems and gaps between them provide shelter for hibernating flies. Jackdaws in particular will work their way up the hips and barges pulling out a straw at a time, teasing out flies too sleepy to flee. It doesn’t take long before the lawn below looks like half the roof has fallen on it. It’s rarely as bad as the evidence would suggest, and depending on the age and condition of the roof, there are several things that can be done, from repairing any holes, to wiring the weakest points to discourage the birds.

Below are pictures showing a patch beneath a chimney before, during and after. We wired this barge some time ago, so it just needed tightening up all over once we had finished.

A Winter’s Tale…

Papwort's Piggery

Even if I weren’t shaking sheets of ice off the tarps at the beginning of the day, I can tell it’s getting colder as with every few degrees less, Daisy adds a few layers more…. she is up to 5 now plus her jacket. That said, having finished Mr and Mrs P’s piggery, we are now on the sunny side of Mr and Mrs H’s roof, so it’s not long before we warm up. We are re-thatching their house in water reed, with a simple, straight block ridge. We are only doing two sides as the two rear extensions still have a few years in them. It is often the case that each elevation wears at a different rate to the other, with things like the prevailing weather, shading from trees, the pitch of the roof or how many details like dormer ‘eyebrows’ or valleys there are, all influencing how the roof bears up over time. Perhaps sadly the more straight, steep and featureless your roof, the longer it will last between coats.
With a ridge lasting up to eight years and the main coatwork lasting up to twenty, it can be a bit of a juggle timing a re-thatch to coincide with a re-ridge, but we try to keep you dry with small patches where necessary, and timetable your work so that you are getting the most out of your roof. The only time we might advise you to the contrary is if you are selling your house, as a glowing new thatch that will last for years is a good selling point.
Daisy’s youngest is counting down the days to Christmas… I expect Mr and Mrs H are counting the days till the scaffolding goes as not many people like scaffolding poles as a view out of the window on Christmas day!

Ridge rolls, reed boats and Texans…

While I watch the Peregrine and the young swallow competing with maximum speed and agility…the one to secure his lunch, the other to secure it’s life…Daisy is engaged in a litany of outrage which finally punctures my bird watching peace…”Thatcher…THATCHER!!…I’ve seen them; I’ve actually stood and watched them and they are only putting on 2 ridge rolls! One on top and one to the side!!!”

So far in her apprenticeship, Daisy has tied  on and sparred together hundreds of ridge rolls, and then fixed thousands of cross spars through the wheat reed ridges…and she has heard plenty of cursing when I arrive at a new roof to re-ridge it only to find that there is bugger-all to fix it to.
The ridge, the peak of a roof needs 4 or 5 ridge rolls being 3 – 4 ” in diameter running horizontally along it’s whole length on each side, the whole thing looking very much like an upside-down  reed boat, the kind used on the Nile. Ridge rolls are needed to give a solid base to fix the final ridge to, to keep the ridge at a good, steep pitch, and of course to help keep out the rain…in short; if you  think you could turn your ridge over and float it down a river, then it should keep you dry for a great many years.
Building a ridge without them will work well enough first time around, but as the ridge needs to be done more often than the rest of the roof, what happens is, that as the roof thins and degrades, there is less and less to fix to…hence the cursing when I take off a ridge to find nothing but a thin coat of fragile reed beneath it. Adding ridge rolls in at this stage can mean taking off layers of thatch, and more expense…not news any customer would like to hear.
One of the best things about our work, is the people we meet….
On our way from yard to Mr and Mrs M’s roof, we passed a man out for a run. He was wearing bright orange shorts, the kind of hat that has seen a great deal of weather and a tan to match. I said to Daisy, ” I don’t think he’s from round here”. Later that day the same man and his equally weathered friend walked by and stopped to introduce themselves as Bird-dog and Vino (you sort of have to say their names with a Texan accent otherwise it just doesn’t sound right); professional climbers from Texas and North Carolina. They were staying with family and friends in the village and were interested to see how thatch worked. The great thing about thatching right in the village, is getting to chat to passers-by, and before long we had met the whole group as had Mr M. and Paul, who had taken it upon themselves to re-paint the signpost at the tip of the garden. We were all very kindly invited to a barbeque at their friend’s house. Ms A, the hostess had brought her smoker oven with her from Texas and she and Bird-dog had spent much of the day cooking the most delicious feast: There was smoked brisket, and ribs and beer-can chicken…I can’t quite remember how Bird-dog said that worked…but it tasted great, and mexican salsas and enchiladas, and so many other lovely things. There was dancing…not the Texas two step, but Bird-dog’s own ‘Lawnmower’, which makes me grin just thinking about it. Thank you so much Ms A…that was a fabulous night in excellent company.

Peak perfection…

These days we find our clients care deeply about the appearance and style of their roof, as well as it’s functionality and history. With this in mind, we increasingly use sketches to show how the style and details of the ridge can best draw all of the elements of the roof together.

With styles of block ridge ranging from the subtle ‘Devon block’ (a small straight block, with no decoration) to the highly ornate ‘continuous patterned block’ using scallops, diamonds or ogee, there is much to choose from and much to consider. Throughout the South West, and especially in Dorset, there seems to be a move towards simpler designs of ‘block ridges’. I spotted a lovely one near Cadhay Manor the other day, with detail at either end, one scallop in the middle and straight block inbetween. The Treehouse on our home page had just one central detail on each side, and this one we are on now, shown below, where the complexity, and changing pitches over the eyebrow required a simpler approach…

Given that block ridges are a relatively recent style of ridging, it is likely that your home was originally ridged with a ‘flush butt-up’ ridge, which is the the simplest ridge, formed flush or in line with the rest of the coatwork.

These days, to change from a Flush Butt-up Ridge to a Block Ridge, or vica versa, you will almost certainly need consent from your local authority. Most Local Authorities also refer to ‘…changing the character of the building’, so if you want to make changes to the style of your block ridge, we would recommend speaking to your local Conservation Officer first. Using the sketches we can provide, perhaps together with old photographs it should be possible to argue the case for a ridge that suits your house well….avoiding the kind of mis-match that comes from wearing an Ascot hat with your work-a-day clothes…or a flat cap with a cocktail dress!



Building Ridges…

Before we left the lovely Mr and Mrs G, they kindly let us copy photos of their house since the 60’s showing how their ridge has changed.

The Victorians introduced the decorative block ridges and they became more popular after the second world war. In the following photos you can see this roof’s journey from flush ridge, through highly decorated, and now settling in with it’s neighbour the museum.img_4084img_4080img_4083img_4058

Note how poor the condition of the museum roof is in the earliest photo!