Meet a Master Thatcher
PUBLISHED: 15:03 20 October 2008 | UPDATED: 15:32 20 February 2013
In this November issue, we look at the traditional rural skill of thatching and ask a Master Thatcher about how he got into the trade and how the industry is doing
Meet a Master Thatcher
Ian Wilkinson talks to Christopher Robinson, a master thatcher, about his traditional rural skills
To the thousands of visitors who flock to the county every year, the thatched cottage ranks with golden beaches, pasties and clotted cream as one of those iconic symbols of Cornwall. Its image has graced countless chocolate boxes, biscuit tins, jigsaw puzzles, postcards and tourist brochures to such a degree that a stranger could be forgiven for thinking that all of us down here live under a thatch of one sort or another.
But would we really like to live in one? Well, possibly, but most people's knowledge of thatched roofs is sketchy enough to breed a certain caution - not to say trepidation - in committing oneself to actually taking on the responsibility for caring and maintaining such an unknown entity, let alone relying on it to keep us warm and dry!
In fact, a good thatched roof will last upwards of 30 years. It provides unrivalled insulation, it's environmentally friendly and it doesn't need guttering. To find out more about thatch I visited Christopher Robinson, a master thatcher of some repute from Kilkhampton. I arrange to meet him in the tiny village of Marhamchurch where he is repairing the thatch on one of the cottages.
How, I asked, did he come to make a lifetime career of this unusual rural occupation? "When I went to school in Kilkhampton I did a small project on rural crafts and became interested in thatching; the construction, what materials were used and how it kept the rain out," he tells me. "One day I was with the school rugby team and saw a thatcher working on a roof. I got chatting to him and he asked me if I would like to help him out during school holidays. I agreed and worked for him all that summer. I learnt a lot. How the wheat straw is fastened together in bundles and laid on the roof and how it's secured to the beams and pegged in place, and how the ridgeline is completed. The next year I went back and helped out again and then decided that that was what I wanted to do."
When Christopher left school in 1978 he started working for a local thatcher. At that time there was a government-funded agency known as the Council for Rural Industries, which, as its name suggests, actively encouraged the development of countryside skills. Through the Council he secured an apprenticeship which contributed towards his wages and provided formal training. "There were ten boys chosen each year from all over the UK but mainly from traditional thatching areas such as Cornwall, Devon, Oxfordshire and East Anglia," he remembers. "Apart from learning on the job, they used to arrange block release to a centre in Northamptonshire where we used to go for a week at a time. They had lots of small thatched roofs under cover that we could work on and apply our skills before being let loose on a real roof!"
The fact that the government of the day felt it necessary to encourage a renaissance in thatching reflected partly on the steady decline of the industry and partly on the growing realisation that the thatched roof was an important element of our architectural heritage, which was in danger of being lost for want of the necessary skills.
Thatch in this country has been with us since the Middle Ages, when straw and reed provided an easily obtainable, cheap and durable building material to roof the dwellings of a rapidly increasing population. Its popularity declined in densely populated areas because of the fire risk, but the material remained extremely popular in rural areas. However, the development of the slate industry in the early 19th century and the easier transportation of building materials meant that thatch began to fall out of favour, even in the countryside. The decline continued well into the 20th century,
And the state of the industry today? "Really on the up," is Christopher's view. "Most of the thatched houses left have been Listed by English Heritage. Even the ones with the thatch covered in tin will have to be re-roofed one day - and that means more work for the thatcher. There are even a surprising number of new-builds with thatch, so the future of the business looks bright!"
So, having bought your dream thatched cottage, what should you look for in a thatcher? "Personal recommendation and membership of a professional body are good starting points," Christopher tells me. "And try to see examples of the thatcher's work - preferably work that's a few years old."
Like any industry, standards vary. For instance, when constructing the all-important ridge, Christopher uses rolls of reed tied together in bundles and laid across the apex to form a secure base for the ridge itself. "Obviously making the ridge rolls is time-consuming and costly," he tells me. "If they're not made properly or are left out, the roof deteriorates because the ridge has no foundation. So, if one thatcher's price for a new roof - typically around £10,000 for a cottage, is a couple of thousand less - ask yourself why!"
"Most roofs require a new ridge every ten to fifteen years," Christopher continues. Other than that it's common sense. Have the moss cleaned off occasionally, keep a check on overhanging trees and don't strip the paint from upper window frames with a blowlamp!"
The thatched roof is certainly here to stay and the future of this fascinating rural industry seems assured in the hands of people like Christopher Robinson. As I take my leave of him there is heat in the day and I am conscious that it will be heavy work up there in the late summer sunshine. Christopher shouts his farewell. "The old thatcher I used to work for said that for this job you need a barrel of cider at the foot of the ladder and another up on the ridge - if it's hot down there it's even hotter up here!"