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...


1 comment:

  1. Thanks so much, Prue! Wonderful interesting story and photos and lovely insight into the lives of these craftsmen. I feel for their creaking and sore joints!