a photographer's notebook issue 17
a head for heights

It began with a glance upwards, scaffold rising over an old farmhouse, a thatched roof reaching the end of its useful life, but also at the beginning of a new one. 
Over the years I have worked at height in a variety of industrial scenarios …
harnessed in helicopters and on offshore wind turbines, clambering around oil and gas installations at land and sea, but it hasn’t always been a comfortable experience …
so the warm tones of fresh thatch seemed to offer the allure of a soft landing … if required.


As I photographed Mark at work over the next few months, casual conversations about the provenance of the materials he was using, stirred my curiosity. So much of it now imported … Austria, Turkey, Ukraine, and many more far flung countries, but still to be found, albeit grown in smaller quantities, here in the UK. And so began a journey over the next 3 seasons, in part back to nature, but also into the past, the old ways. Discovering crafts that, for so many reasons, new generations are reluctant to take on.
First I was lured first to the rolling fields north of Dartmoor and then to the east, landing in the cold wintry reed beds of Norfolk.


Mind your head! 
This is Mark the thatcher testing my concentration ...  uniquely, here in the British Isles, when a roof needs re-thatching, rather than removing all of the old thatch a minimal amount of decayed material is stripped back to reveal the ‘undercoat’, a base layer of shorter, inferior straw which is tied to the roof substrate.


Although it is widely accepted that thatching in its most primitive form dates as far back as the Bronze Age,  it was the arrival of the Normans in 1066 that set the standard for thatching as we know it today. By 1800 there were as many as one million thatched roofs in England.
However, the Industrial Revolution saw more affordable Welsh slate being widely distributed first by canals, then railways.
Thatch gradually became a mark of poverty and by 2013 it is estimated there were only 60,000 properties left in the UK with a thatched roof.
In its heyday thatching was a staple part of farming life.
Thatchers were often farmers, and likewise farmers were often thatchers.


These u-shaped hazel spars were historically products of coppicing, a job traditionally undertaken by farmers. Home grown spars are now sadly in short supply and these were imported.

Laying the first course of wheat reed. 
From the lowest point of the roof to its apex there are a further 8 to 10 courses to lay.
The metal pegs Mark is using are 'set pins'. These are used to measure the depth of the thatch material and to locate the timber joists. Screw fixings can then be inserted to hold the wire used to fix the thatch material in position.


As Mark works his way around the chimney stack, he shortens a sheaf with a pruning knife to fit under the eaves.


A portrait of the artist at rest … Mark can trace his thatching lineage back through 6 previous generations but working in all weathers high up on a roof does not appeal to the next generation.


The decline in the number of thatched properties, matched by the ever decreasing number of working thatchers in the UK, currently standing at around 800, is due to a multitude of factors … the proliferation of combine harvesters which chop the straw into lengths too short for thatching. The world wars in the last century led to the loss of a line of succession in many thatching families and the migration of the younger generation away from their rural bases. The disbanding of larger estates has diminished both the available work for traditional crafts such as thatching and coppicing and the demand for woodsmen to make the spars and liggers used in thatching. This vicious circle of loss of materials and skills mean that thatchers have become hard to find, and the good ones are booked years ahead!
As to how to become a master thatcher? Sadly there are no longer any government funded apprenticeship schemes
or bespoke courses available. The accepted route is to serve an apprenticeship alongside a master thatcher.
Some 5-7 years later you may then proclaim yourself ‘Master Thatcher!'

The farmhouse Mark is working on is cross gabled and has two roofs. The roof section behind Mark is almost finished - apart from where one ridge section will meet the other. In the foreground Mark is using a leggett, a heavy paddle shaped hand tool with metal grooves in it. This is used to dress the coatwork by patting the thatched straw into the desired position from the base and to apply a smooth, even finish to the combed wheat reed.


More thatch material in the back of Mark’s truck ready to unload … 



…and here ready for lifting
to the next scaffold section.


Not quite the final cut but getting there; Mark is now shearing off the excess along the top of the ridge with a pair of hand shears.


And so to mid-Devon where much of the combed wheat straw used in thatching is produced.
The demands of modern agriculture have created a sheaf of wheat that has a very high yield but with a shorter straw stem length, perfect for combine harvesters, whereas wheat for use in thatching is altogether different but primarily taller, and requires lighter weight equipment, and a more delicate approach.
The Ford 3000 tractor seen below comes from the USA and the binder that is towing behind it, which essentially replaced a human with a scythe, was also a US invention, dating back to 1872. The binder cuts the crop and ties it into sheaves; visually it has changed very little since its first creation. The two machine operators are binderers.
Both thatching and harvesting have their own glossaries, vocabularies unique both to their vernacular and to the evolution of the crafts themselves.
In my next newsletter I’ll be taking a look at bindering, stooking, stamping, draying and threshing. 

to see more of Charlie’s photographs, visit the website at e m 07802 820408
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