Friday, 17 February 2017


Ten years ago we were living in our 300-year-old Mid-Devon Cottage and waiting to have the roof re-thatched. It was in a poor state. People often question how long a thatched roof will last, and the answer is not clear-cut. It depends on so many factors: the location of the house and its exposure to the elements; the wind, weather and temperatures across every season of the year; the type of material used, the pitch and height of the roof; and so on. You could estimate as a broad rule of thumb that a wheat-thatched roof in Mid-Devon might last for twelve to fifteen years, maybe more. On the other hand it could only last ten, which would be unfortunate because the cost of re-thatching is not cheap. 

Costs aside, this article is really about how two men, father and son, carried on this age-old tradition over a period of eight weeks in the early summer of 2007. During that period we came to know Richard and Marc pretty well. Aside from the obvious things which you find out about people working on your house: how much tea, coffee etc. they drink in a day; at what intervals; sugar, milk and biscuit requirements… we learnt about the physical demands of this type of work. Thatching is heavy, skilled labouring combined with artistry and a wonderful sense of balance. We discovered the arduous nature of working on your back in an awkward space when it’s raining. And we could see for ourselves the physical effect it can have on a body, when the Richard gritted his teeth against the pain of the onset of arthritis, probably caused entirely by his job. 

The government is expecting people to be able to continue to work long beyond what might be considered a reasonable retirement age – but can a man of seventy honestly be expected to be as nimble, as strong and as well able to balance on scaffolding or a roof in wind and sleet as a man half that age?

These two thatchers are descended from still more thatchers. The firm has passed from father to son over five generations. 

We already knew that Richard had been born in our cottage, but we did not expect the effect of this to be a regular inspection by his own father, now ‘retired’ and checking up on the work being carried out in his name. The two on the roof were not very happy with this – it unnerved them somewhat every time they glimpsed the grey car driving slowly up the road past the house, but they could do nothing to prevent it.

Equally disconcerting for me was the odd occasion when I spotted Richard making business telephone calls to arrange other contracts, materials and such, from a position high on one of the ladders, leaning back against the thatch and gesticulating with his free hand. This might have seemed second-nature to him, but it was not easy to observe!

Right at the end I climbed up on to the scaffolding to take a look at their world, to appreciate the beauty of the finished result and to marvel at their competence. It was easy to examine the thatch, but when I turned round to appreciate the view it was the sheer height at which they worked with such apparent ease, the gaping spaces between the footboards and the ever-present possibility of tumbling off this perch if one lost concentration for a moment, which left a lasting impression.

 And here is the finished result. A beautiful, eyecatching and iconic representation of the craft of a thatcher. So many thanks to Richard and Marc, this was worth every penny. I passed it again recently and although not quite as pristine and much darker in colour, ten years on it is still looking good...


Saturday, 4 February 2017


Watery Lane, February 2014

This week attending a funeral meant travelling the hour-long journey back to the village where we used to live, to remember an old friend and neighbour of many years. As luck would have it we last saw Gordon just before Christmas. A broad smile of welcome crossed his genial face and I was greeted with a hug of such warmth, which I will never forget. When a friend reaches the age of ninety, however, it is always possible that each encounter will be the last. And so it was.

As the crow flies one could probably travel door-to-door on this journey in less than half an hour. But in Devon journeys are seldom so simple. The village where we lived lies roughly in the middle of this large county. Devon contains more mileage of road, I believe, than any other county – but such roads! In this area most of them take travellers on a tortuous journey across a landscape full of hills and valleys. We became used to the single track aspect of the lanes which branched out from our village to towns such as Crediton, Tiverton, Winkleigh and South Molton. Many are flanked on both sides by the infamous ‘Devon Banks’ bordering the fields, oozing mud on to the  already poorly surfaced highways. When we lived there cleaning the car was a mug’s game, because no sooner was it gleaming, than driving to anywhere from the village covered it in mud again within minutes.

Sure enough when we arrived the car was filthy. It has been a cold, wet January and none of this made our arrival any less depressing. I make it sound like a wonderful place to live, don’t I? Why on earth, you are asking, did you live in this village forhow long? Thirty-odd years?
What kept us in the village has little to do with the economy, our jobs, schools or finances – although those were often critical. The people who became lifelong friends were the reason. Many of them are local people who were born in the same house in which they continue to live now. Others, like us, were drawn to a simpler life from the suburbs and outskirts of our capital city. After the funeral we found ourselves welcomed like the old friends we were, in a village hall packed with Devonians who had come together to mourn one of their own.

Watery Lane is not the geographical name of the lane in the picture, but one by which it has been known by generations of local people. It is one of those single-track bumpy lanes with blind corners and tight curves, but if instead of driving you walk down it you will be seduced by a wonderful view of the Mid-Devon countryside. Indeed the famous ‘Two Moors’ Walk’ runs near to here. The lane itself is not very long, and it has a tendency to flood during heavy rain due to its low-lying aspect and the run-off of water from fields on both sides –an obvious reason for its soubriquet. It is also a good example of why you should carry a pair of wellington boots in your car in Devon during the winter!

Places and the people who live in them bind us to our memories. This little lane will always be remembered by me with great affection, as will so many of those Devon folk I re-encountered on Tuesday. And of course, the ones who were only present in my heart.

In memory of GFR, SEH, EDS, HPGU and GFF all of whom died in January of this century.