The art of thatching in the Cotswolds (and you can have a go too)
PUBLISHED: 11:07 11 June 2019
The thatcher's craft is both challenging and rewarding, Siân Ellis discovers
As glorious summer sun beats down on the Cotswolds spare a thought for master thatcher Dan Quartermain and his team busy at work.
"You get a lot of reflection off the material of the roof and you can't get any shade while you are up there," Dan says. "Last summer we were starting at 5am and finishing at 1pm, so that we could escape the worst of the heat. We recorded temperatures of 450c up on roofs; you can do about 20 minutes' work, then you have to come down for shade and water before you can do 20 minutes more."
Dan readily admits there are many bonuses to being a thatcher too. "Invariably we are working in some of the most beautiful areas of countryside and we get views that nobody else really sees, over villages and of wildlife."
Traditional Cotswold buildings are famous for their steep-pitched limestone slate roofs, but sprinkles of thatch are also characteristic, "particularly on the peripheries of the Cotswolds, coming into Oxfordshire, Worcestershire and Warwickshire." It is a millennia-old craft for which people always used materials closest to hand. "Thatch in the Cotswolds tends to be wheat straw based, although today we sometimes thatch in reed on newer builds because it has a slightly longer life."
Dan, who grew up in Hook Norton and is now based at Little Compton, first got into his trade through helping out a local thatcher during the school summer holidays. In 1985 when he was 16 this led to a four-year apprenticeship. From 1990 he began working for himself and has built a small personal company that works throughout the Cotswolds.
"I've never had a day when I haven't had work. Generally we have a lead-in time of the best part of a year ahead."
Projects have included thatching famous historic properties like Anne Hathaway's Cottage at Shottery, but most work is done for private customers. "The majority of the buildings we work on are listed and that secures the future of thatching because they have to be maintained. Now and again we do new builds."
As far as possible, Dan sources his thatching materials in the UK, while always maintaining standards of quality. It can be challenging because he needs old varieties of wheat straw with long stems, harvested in a particular manner using old types of machinery. So, too, sourcing hazel spars (used to peg the wheat straw into place) can be tricky due to hazel coppices not being maintained over the years. Suppliers who do grow the right materials have good niche markets, Dan says.
He is a great advocate for the credentials of thatch as a sustainable material with great insulating properties. "The majority of the materials supplied to us are grown organically and of course are renewable. We take the old thatch we remove from roofs for use as animal bedding; afterwards it goes out onto the muck pile and eventually back onto the field - completely recycled."
Tools, techniques and teaching
Tools and techniques have changed little over the centuries, whether twisting hazel spars to peg yealms (bundles) of straw into place or using a bat-like leggett to tamp down the face of the thatch. But "thatching is much more involved and much more labour intensive than people imagine," Dan says. From hand selecting and preparing every piece of straw taken onto the roof, to detailed work like hand cutting out eaves, the team is meticulous to achieve the best standards.
"According to location and weather, straw-based thatch will last approximately 20-25 years, while the ridge along the top, which is the greatest wear point, needs replacing every ten to 12 years." Turnover ridges, where straw is folded over the apex of the roof, are most popular in the Cotswolds (in contrast to 'butt-up' where the butt ends of the straw are pressed together to form an apex). 'Plain' flush ridges are more traditional, but ornamental ridges are provided when requested.
One member of the team, the son of a local family, won a year's bursary from the Prince's Trust charity to learn about rural crafts and has stayed on with Dan to continue a thatching apprenticeship.
"Thatching isn't for everybody, they find how dusty it is, how cold it can be, how heavy and hard work it is," Dan says. "The best way in is to approach a local thatcher personally and offer them a week or two's work free of charge as a trial, although not every thatcher is looking for an apprentice at any particular time."
Last year Dan taught thatching as part of a Princes' Trust / Young Gloucestershire pilot scheme project encouraging young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to try different rural skills. "It was thought provoking and rewarding. If you can engage even one child it is worth the effort."
He also runs popular Cotswolds Rural Skills 'taster' days at Northleach for anyone interested in trying their hand at thatching. "All sorts come, men and women, and they invariably discover there's a lot more to it than they ever imagined!"
Find out more about Dan Quartermain, master thatcher at danquartermain.co.uk; tel. 01608 674116 / 07974 421476.
Fancy having a go?
Want to learn more about straw thatching and try your hand at this age-old craft? Join Dan Quartermain for a Taster Day (£99) at Northleach; forthcoming dates include July 18 andd September 7. For details and booking information visit cotswoldsruralskills.org.uk
Cotswolds Rural Skills is the one-stop shop for hands-on courses in a range of crafts practised in the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Come and have a go at:
- Greenwood working: stool making July 20/21, August 24/25, October 12/13; traditional hay rake making June 9; spoon carving June 15, August 31.
- Lime mortar restoration (beginners): June 14/15, July 20/21, August 17/18, September 21/22, October19/20, November 16/17.
- Flax-making: August 15.
Find out more and book at cotswoldsruralskills.org.uk.
For further information on the Cotswolds AONB, visit cotswoldaonb.org.uk.