Stephen has worked as a thatcher since the 1970s. He talks about his working life and the work he did, along with his brother, on cottages, churches, boat sheds, bus stops and even a village sign.
I was born in 1954 at my grandparents’ house, Crome’s Farm, How Hill. In those days young mothers would go to their mother’s home to have their first child. It wasn’t an easy birth so my father had to go and phone Jimmy Walsh, the doctor, at Stalham. Not every house had a phone in those days and they certainly didn’t have one at Crome’s Farm. Father had to bike a mile over to Mill House to use their phone. By the time Father got back, Jimmy Walsh was wandering up the path to the house with his bag in his hand, whistling away, went up to the bedroom and, according to Mother, he saved my life because I was a blue baby.
My sister, Susan, was born in 1956 and my brother, Michael, was born in 1965. My father was a farm labourer and worked at Mill and Bray Farms, Sutton. He was also a relief milkman, and looked after the shoots. They had a game shoot on the arable land and a duck shoot and a duck pond down at the marshes at Hickling, between Eastfield and Stubb.
My mother worked as a typist at Laurence and Scott in Norwich till she married my father and had the family. Like a lot of women then, when she could, she worked on the land, picking strawberries, potatoes, apples, pears, holly, everything in season. My first memory of the farm was when my sister was born, when I was two, and we moved from our little thatched cottage at Church Road, Sutton to the Mill Cottages down Mill Road. Father got a little Allis Chalmers tractor and trailer and piled all our possessions onto the trailer which he drove about a mile down Mill Road, to the cottages. Mother walked behind with my sister in the pram and I walked beside her. We got about halfway and I got a bit tired so Father lifted me up and I sat on his lap for the rest of the journey. I can remember the tractors coming up and down the road, and Father working on the farm, driving the tractors. When I was a bit older I used to go and help him down at the marshes. I’d check on the cows and count them, when they were on the marshes in the summer. We had to feed them weekends and sometimes I’d go down and help. We lived in tied farm cottages until Father became a thatcher in the ‘70s when he bought his own house in Sutton.
I started fishing, sailing and canoeing when I got to secondary school, when I had my own bike and was old enough to go out on my own. I used to go down to Sutton Staithe fishing, or the Pleasure Boat dyke at Hickling or even to Stubb Mill on the Hickling Marshes where I’d fish in the millpond. I went to Sutton primary school and then on to Stalham High School till I was fifteen. A lot of my school friends’ fathers worked on farms. There must have been at least ten men working on Mill and Bray Farms which were about four hundred to five hundred acres. These days that would be a part-time job for one man.
I have lovely memories of How Hill, it was idyllic. Mother and Father couldn’t afford holidays away but every summer we went to my grandparents at Crome’s Farm for three or four weeks. Crome’s Farm is about a mile from the river, just as you come into How Hill from Sharp Street in Catfield. It’s a farm of about ninety acres. The farm is still there today but it’s no longer a tenant farm. It was owned by the Boardman family when my grandparents were there. After my grandfather died they didn’t let the tenancy out again. They took the land back and they’re now farming it. We had a lovely time roaming about the fields, through the woods, going out in the morning after breakfast, not coming back till we were hungry. We built dens with bales, on the fields, go into the woods, play cowboys, make our own weapons, bows and arrows out of pieces of willow and things like that. Of course it was generally harvest time so if Grandfather or my Uncle John, who also worked on the farm, went out on the trailer, we’d cadge a lift and go out to the fields and watch them loading the bags of corn or bales of straw onto the trailer.
At that time there was a lot of sailing on the Broads, but it wasn’t till the late 1960s, mid 1970s, that you began to see more cruisers. In the late 1970s there were boats continuously going either way, especially on the Bure at Horning. It was a bit like a motorway, non-stop all day long. You couldn’t really get away from it. I remember going down to the little marshman’s cottage, when we used to stay at my grandparents, because one of our friends, Janet Smithson, was the daughter of the gamekeeper, Bob Smithson, at How Hill. We used to go down onto the Staithe and that’s when I first saw reed being cut. Bob Smithson and Eric Edwards, who used to work down at How Hill, cut the reed and stacked it all on the Staithe there.
I first started fishing at How Hill. My grandfather made me a cane rod, put a bit of line on, made me a float and we’d go down there to catch fish, and strangely enough I actually caught fish. I generally caught eels by accident there but later on we used to go eel babbing on the Broads. You have a piece of stick, usually hazel, about four feet long, a bit of string, or a bit of line tied to it and at the bottom you have a coil of worms and a load of worsted wool tied at the end of the line. You drop the worms into the water, lift the stick up and down, bob it up and down, the eels see the worms, grab hold of them and, because the worsted is on the end, their teeth get stuck on it, and then you lift them into the boat and just drop them off. I remember doing that on Hickling Broad from a pleasure boat with Father, one or two of his mates and several guys older than me, in their late teens, early twenties. They had a crate of beer and they had a whale of a time while they were eel babbing. Several of the eels didn’t actually get into the boat, they sort of flew over the boat and landed in the reed bed. One time, when I had my own boat, we left the eels in the bottom of the boat ‘cos there was a bit of water in there, and we went back for them the next day. We ate some and gave some away, so they didn’t go to waste. Some were three foot, four foot long and quite thick. There were a lot of eels in the Broad then. My best friend, Richard, had a canvas canoe, a two-seater, and we used to go on adventures, over Hickling Broad, round all the backwaters. In those days the water was as clear as anything and you could see the weeds and the bottom, and when you were round the backwaters you could see the big fish, like tench and pike just lying, sunning themselves in the water. We went as far as Horsey Mere, via Meadow Dyke, across Heigham Sounds to Potter Bridge. We even found a way as far as Somerton Staithe, so a lot of adventures.
Father left the farm when he was made redundant in 1970. The owner, died, his son-in-law took over and realised there were too many men on the farm to make a go of it. They got rid of the dairy herd so Father wasn’t needed. I was sixteen at the time and that was the year I started at agricultural college. Father began reed cutting and sedge cutting by hand at Hickling and Horsey with his mate, George Newman, and made a good living out of it. They got an Allen scythe which they walked behind and cut the reed. It made the job much easier as they could get more reed and just had to dress it out. They tried to fit in other work as well, to help see them through the year. One summer they were working at Somerton, doing repairs on council properties, and Mr Rice, who was in charge of maintenance, asked if they knew of a thatcher. They had loads of thatch on the council holdings and they couldn’t find anyone to do the work. When Father first left school he lived at Martham and spent some time with the local thatcher, Billy Tungate, so he knew a bit about it. So he bluffed his way in and said ‘Yeah, I can do that’. He went off with Mr Rice to look at a few jobs, gave him a price and Mr Rice said ‘Well you’ve got the work’. So Father started thatching on his own by doing repair jobs and gradually worked his way up. He was self-taught, apart from the bits he learnt from Billy Tungate. There weren’t any official training schemes then. In the late 1970s, early 1980s, I think a thatching college started at Northampton and a lot of apprentices were sent there by thatchers to learn the different types of thatching, but that’s no longer going now.
I went to Norfolk Agricultural School at Easton. First year I gained City & Guilds in Arable, Machinery and Livestock and the second year I got my National Certificate. There were three of us from Stalham, me and my two mates, Robert Cook and Cliff Colman, and we were some of the youngest there. Some of the others had been to university, but we were first, second and third both years, yet we came from secondary school, so we were quite chuffed. When I came home weekends I helped Father with the reed and sedge cutting and carrying the reed off the marshes. I didn’t do a lot of thatching then because he was just doing small repair jobs. Several years later, when he had too much work and I was made redundant, I started to learn the trade properly.
Whilst I was at college I had an interest in pig farming. Father and I used to keep a few pigs at home. What I really wanted was to have my own pig herd so I knew that I needed to go and work on a commercial pig farm. For the first three months after leaving Norfolk School of Agriculture I worked on the college pig farm from June through to September, and then I got a job as a trainee at Hall Farm, Hindringham, between Fakenham and Holt. It was a 150-200 sow herd, and the owner was keen to modernise. The head pigman, Roy Hayes, was really good. He’d been at college when I was there and I learnt a lot from him. Everything was done properly, the pens were cleaned out properly, the sows were looked after but a year later he left to start his own pig herd. After that the pig herd grew to about 300 sows and became very intensive and they had sow stalls. The owner wanted to fatten the pigs himself, which made sense but we had a system where the food was all wet-fed but automated, and that’s when I started to lose interest because I found it too intensive and I didn’t like the way the pigs were being treated. At that time, in the mid 1970s, pigs took a slump, pig farmers weren’t making any money and in September 1975 I was made redundant. I had two choices, one was either to go back to Easton and take the Advanced Pig Husbandry course, or to go with Father who, by that time, had too much work on and couldn’t cope. I went home, had a word with Father who said ‘Why don’t you come with me and learn a new trade?’ And that’s what I did.
I learnt the basics of thatching from Father until early 1980 and then decided to go on my own. My brother, Mick, is a thatcher and when he left college in 1983 he joined me, for a couple of years, to learn the trade. We then went into partnership until 2006, when we had different ideas and went our separate ways. We did a lot of interesting work together and he’s still thatching today.
When you start on an old roof, the first thing you do is strip the thatch off. It’s a mucky, dirty job and takes quite a bit of time, especially in the hot summer when the muck and dirt sticks to you. Once you’ve cleared the thatch off, you’ll probably put a fire barrier underneath the thatch, either a fire membrane or the Dorset model where you put bats and things in at the eaves. When you’ve got a fire membrane you then put batons across so that you’ve got wooden splines to fix into, about every 300ml, rather than fixing into the rafters. You start at the bottom and lay the eave course on, which is a bunch thick. A bunch is about 300ml when you measure across the base. You pin those onto the bottom of the roof, temporarily, so they’re held in position, put a steel rod across the bunches and then put galvanized screw fixings and wires into them. You drill those into the rafters. The wires are then twisted round the steel rod and pulled up with a puller till they’re tight. You then shape the eaves underneath so you’ve got the nice eave shape. The next course is put on to shape the brow of the roof, and that is shaped with the traditional leggatt which is a square piece of wood, about an inch thick, with horse shoe nails in it on a handle.
Modern leggatts are aluminium, roughly the same size, on a handle with grooves in it. You pat the eaves up, or pat the thatch to shape it to the angle you want. Once you’ve got the brow course on, you set the angle of the roof and then work up it, one course at a time, repeating the process of putting the rod across each course, and then the screw fixings into the battens, into the spine and you pull them up tight. The thatch is at least a foot thick, depending on the length of the reed. The longer the reed, the thicker the thatch because, obviously, you’ve got more thatch building up under the roof. It is important to backfill under each course. You take a bunch of reed, split it, cut the string with a knife, take handfuls out and you push the reed in behind the facework that you’re doing. This lifts the thatch up against the rod and tightens it and stops it from slipping. Every course has backfilling. You carry out these processes on each course until you get to the top and once you’re within two feet of the ridge, you’ve got enough reed on. You then have to cut off the reed that overhangs the ridge, just above the ridge boards, at the angle of the slope coming up from the other side of the roof.
You thatch the other slope in the same way until you overhang the ridge at the same level as the front of the other slope. You then cut off the overhang and build the ridge up in sedge grass which is more pliable. Generally you have three courses of sedge on a ridge. One is the skirt which pulls up the thickness and you drop the sedge to the distance you want to the ridge. The next one is a packing course which fills the middle out and ensures you’ve got plenty of thickness to brotch into, and then there’s a reed roll that goes on top. The reed roll, which runs the full length of the property, gives something to fix into, on top of the ridge and levels the ridge off. Once the reed roll is fitted onto the two layers of sedge below, a saddle course is put over the top so the sedge goes one way, then the other, and covers the roll, making it watertight, and it covers all the brotches that are holding the sedge on the layers below. Once the sedge is on, you start the pattern work.
Pattern work in thatch
The pattern work is done with hazel rods and hazel brotches. You start at the top, run a hazel rod across the top of the ridge in the centre, to secure the saddle, and then you work from the top down, putting four leggatts on to give the spacing down to the bottom of the ridge. In each space you put the pattern work, which is normally triple diamond which means, if you look across the pattern work at an angle, you can see three diamonds. All over the country they’ll do roughly the same pattern but it’s a bit more ornate in Norfolk because you have to angle the rods to secure the sedge. If you put them up straight they’re not going to hold anything. Each rod is held on with a brotch which is like a wooden staple with a twist in it. It’s got a point either end and is about two feet long and when you bend it over you’ve got the twist in the middle. You then push about 12 inches into the roof. You need very strong hands, especially if the ridge is tight, and you’ve got to make sure every brotch, or spar as we call them, goes either slightly upwards or slightly at an angle to avoid water to getting into the roof. The ridge is all done by eye and once you get to the bottom you’re left with a step up with the sedge from the reed and the finish depends on the thatcher. Some thatchers put on half rounds, some put points at various distances. Some will do a full ornate pattern which is complete rounds, one joining another, and some have a variation of rounds of different sizes and that’s how a thatcher can tell another thatcher’s work, because of the way the ridge is finished. The public can probably see it’s different without knowing who the thatcher was. Each thatcher leaves a mark on the roof, either with slightly different angles on the pattern, slightly different drop patterns, or slightly different distances between the drop pattern. The average cottage takes between six and eight weeks to thatch it completely if you have two thatchers on it.
Cost of thatching
An average re-thatch costs somewhere between £15,000 to £25,000. Thatching is cheaper in Norfolk because of the labour costs. In Essex, southern England or Northamptonshire, thatchers can charge more because labour costs are higher. They don’t seem to be so cut-throat there. There are several thatchers in Norfolk who have cut their prices which means everybody has to. In the rest of the country they have tried to keep the prices at a reasonable level so they don’t have to work too hard and can still make a good living. Around here for the thatchers’ square, which is an area of ten feet by ten feet, it’s about £1,100 to £1,200 per square, whereas in Northamptonshire thatchers would be charging £1,400 per square, and down south it’ll cost about £1,800 per square, so there’s quite a difference. More affluent areas will charge more but, traditionally in Norfolk, the wages have been lower because we’re a bit further away from the action. If the reed is put on the right way, a Norfolk reed thatch should last 50 to 60 years. Straw thatch could last a lot less than a reed thatch. If you’re using combed wheat reed you’ll probably get 30 to 40 years out of it, and if you’re using long straw you might get ten years out of it. In a lot of cases, especially down south, if it’s a listed building, customers must replace the thatch like for like. The ridge on a thatched roof lasts 15 to 20 years, mainly because it gets all the wear, it’s exposed to all the elements. The cost for thatching is split roughly 60/40. Labour is approximately 60% of the cost, and materials roughly 40%. Obviously, with a re-thatch, that goes up slightly but as a general rule, about 60/40, by the time you take the reed, the sedge, the brotches, screw fixings, the rod and everything else into account.
Reed quality and imported reed
Norfolk reed was traditionally the best but it lost its way in the 1980s and 1990s. It wasn’t managed as well as it should have been. The reed beds and ditches became clogged up. More intensive agriculture on the marshes meant more land was ploughed up. The grazing marshes were ploughed up for arable crops and the reed quality deteriorated. To maintain the quality of the reed it needs to be cut, either every year or every other year. Around this area if it’s cut every year, it’s called single wale, if it’s cut every other year, they call it double wale and that depends entirely on the reed bed. You can cut some reed beds once every year, some you leave and cut them every other year, so you’ve got a bit of old growth to protect the new. Since the late 1990s local reeds have been managed a lot better, the quality of the reed has improved and the thatch is probably back to the days when Norfolk reed was good. However, there’s not enough being produced because there are not enough reed cutters. Thatchers can’t get enough reed, especially if they’re working on a big property. Now, the majority of reed for large properties is mainly imported from Ukraine, Poland, Hungary, and sometimes Holland, depending on the value of the pound. China has also been one of the options. We used reed from China several years ago, when the value of the pound fluctuated and those importing reed bought from China. It wasn’t quite as good as the eastern European reed. Another source is Turkey, where there are large reed beds round the Black Sea and places like that. The big advantage of imported reed is that it’s brought in on a container and, if you have got a large job, you can deliver straight to site. It costs a bit more per bunch but you haven’t got to handle it as much as you would local reed. If you’ve got a container load of reed coming straight from the dock to the site, you can roll the bales off and get it unloaded within two or three hours. It’s important to cover the reed with tarpaulins because it’ll deteriorate if the water gets in when it’s on the ground. Thatch lasts so long when it’s on the roof because you’ve only got the stub end, or the butt end, exposed to the weather whereas, in a pile the stem is exposed to the weather and, if the water gets into that, it can rot it. The only disadvantage having reed delivered straight to site is that you need room to unload it and you probably need a machine, like a teleporter, because the reed comes in bales of 50 or 70 and it’s a bit slog to push those out of a container with two or three blokes. With a teleporter it’s quite easy. An advantage of using Norfolk reed is it’s closer and you can pick it up yourself, but it takes longer because it’s in individual bunches. To load 300 bunches onto a trailer and bring it back would probably take the best part of half a day, so you could only unload 600 bunches in a day. To get enough reed to do an average size property would probably take three to four full days.
Currently the best local reed is at Horning, How Hill, and the Hickling reed has got better. I can’t comment on others because I’ve only used these. These sites, which have been designated for wildlife protection and conservation, are generally managed by the Broads Authority down at How Hill, the Wildlife Trust at Hickling, and Horning, near the waterworks, which, I think, is owned by South East Water or South West Water. They get grants to cut the reed and maintain the area for the wildlife. They could do more but a lot of the reed beds are hard to get to. Up to the second world war and just after, all the reeds around the edges of the Broads were cut and a lot more reeds, which were difficult to get to, were cut because there was a big labour force of men who had been doing it all their lives. As soon as they stopped doing it the skill was lost. Not many people wanted to do it because it was hard work. Now only the best areas get cut. It’s a question of whether it’s financially viable to cut in the more secluded areas. The reeds are cut with machines like an Allen scythe which you walk behind. It cuts the reed and you go so far then you stop the machine, take armfuls of reed off and lay it to one side, stand it up and then dress it, tie it and turn it into bunches. If the reed is cut with a scythe it has a better edge on the butt but it’s very hard work. It’s hard enough cutting the reed by machine, and that’s definitely the way the younger guys prefer to work. For listed buildings they don’t mind how it’s cut, and although a lot of them state Norfolk reed should be used, it’s now accepted that if they can’t get Norfolk reed they’ll have to use whatever reed is available. Ukrainian and Polish reed is very similar to Norfolk reed and probably as good if not better. It’s very heavy reed and very strong in the stem and has very hard butts, which is the base of the reed where it’s been cut near the ground, so it’s become an acceptable good substitute for Norfolk reed.
Working away from home
For four or five years we worked away in Lancashire, Hampshire, a couple of times in Lincolnshire, and down in Kent a few times. In 1979 there was a shortage of thatchers in those areas and they were charging a fortune so customers began to look elsewhere. Father’s work was in full swing and he was contacted by a guy in Bransgore in the New Forest. We went down to see him, measured the roof, which was quite big, he liked the price, and we reserved the reed from Hickling, where they were cutting a lot of reed in those days. We arranged for the delivery of two lorry loads of reeds to the site in Bransgore and went down there in September 1979, and that was our first job away. We were down there for about ten weeks and the nice thing is that we’re still friends with the guy and he even came over last year to see Mother and Father. In 1981 we did a job in a place near Ormskirk, Lancashire. That was a bit of a challenge because it never stopped raining. Normally we don’t carry on when it’s raining but we didn’t have any choice in Lancashire because it rained every day. We re-thatched a nice old cottage for Bill and Monica in Grimbleby, Lincolnshire. It was interesting because it close to Manby airfield and Bill, retired from the RAF, bought the cottage, which had a corrugated tin roof, and he didn’t realise there was a thatch roof underneath. Apparently the tin was put on to protect the roof from flares during the war. Four of us worked on it for about three weeks. In1982 we did a huge job at Harvel in Kent, for a guy called Bob Hinds. It was a big old Kent farmhouse with a couple of extensions and took eight to ten weeks. Michael and I have been back since to put a new ridge on it. We worked away all week, coming home every other weekend, or so. We were getting the work on price and quality.
We stopped working away in 1983 until 1995 when my brother and I got the opportunity to work in Switzerland. We did a job in Sutton and the owner’s daughter was married to an archaeologist in Switzerland. They were doing a project on the reconstruction of a Bronze Age house on the edge of the lake at Neuchatel. They’d tried to get German thatchers but they wanted too much money, the French thatchers didn’t reply, so they sent a message to the guy in Sutton asking if their thatchers might be interested, and we said yes. We told them what we needed and they made the tools for us, including leggatts, so we didn’t have to take any over with us. They paid all our travel costs. It was quite a culture shock. We flew out to Geneva and, compared with British Rail in those days, which was like being in the nineteenth century, the train from Geneva to Neuchatel was smooth and on time. As soon as we arrived we had to sign a triple contract and, rather strangely, they told us that on the Wednesday of the second week we would be paid at two o‘clock precisely and I looked at brother Mick and he looked at me and we both laughed. That’s not going to happen. Anyway, it did. On the second Wednesday we got taken to the Treasury in the town and at two o’clock precisely we were paid, on the nail.
We used local reed which came from the other side of the lake which was about 10km wide and 40km long. The guy would turn up in his Range Rover, horsebox on the back, with the reed in the back of the horsebox. He cut the reed because he did a lot fencing for festivals and pop festivals and all his reed had the feathered end cut off. It was cut at 1.2m, 1.4m and 1.6m which was okay but meant that all the bunches of reed were unbalanced without the feather end to balance them. When you threw them they were all bottom heavy. They put up scaffold but it didn’t come out far enough and by the time we got the reed on we couldn’t use it. There weren’t any ladders on site so we had to borrow some off a local construction site. They wanted Bronze Age style thatch but we told them that it would have only been built to last two or three years, so we compromised between the Bronze Age and modern day methods. They supplied nylon string which wasn’t ideal because it stretched but it did the job. They didn’t have hazel so we had to use dogwood to do the ridge. If you think about it, years ago people had to use whatever was available, just as we did. The pattern work was done in dogwood and we used rye grass, rye straw, which had been harvested on the other side of the lake, for the ridge.
Churches, boat sheds, barns and bus stops
In the course of a year, nowadays, my son and I do between ten and twelve jobs a year. Most of those are re-ridging and repairs and, occasionally, a small re-thatching job. We’ve done a lot of churches in the past, and I’ve got Lessingham Church to re-ridge this year. When I was in partnership with my brother we worked on churches at Lessingham, Brumstead, Bacton, Edingthorpe, Swafield and Claxton, to name a few. They were all big jobs and took quite a long time. We’ve also worked on lots of boat sheds around the Broads. If you go to Hill Common at Hickling there are about a dozen boat sheds which I’ve either re-thatched or repaired. They can be quite difficult because you’ve got to work over water, especially at the entrance to the boat shed, and I have taken a few tumbles into the water on those. We do a lot of barns. Many have been converted into accommodation but in the past we’ve done a lot of agricultural barns the farmers wanted to maintain. These days they’re becoming redundant because they’re not big enough to house modern machinery. Most of the barns that we do now are converted into housing. I’ve also thatched one or two bus stops which can be a bit fiddly, and a few village signs as well. Sutton’s got a thatched village sign
We work right through the year. For me the worst time of year is the middle of the summer when it gets too hot, between 11 o’clock and 2 o’clock, when it can be unbearable on the roof and you can’t get away from it. The sun’s beating down on your back and you have to drink so much water, and it takes so much energy out of you. In the winter, when it’s cold and wet, at least you can put extra clothes on, and once you’ve warmed up, it’s not too bad. The trouble is the thatch reflects the heat so when the temperature outside is 30, on a roof it’s probably getting nearer 40 – 45 and that heat is reflected straight back at you.
Scaffolding for thatching now is the norm although we still do a few small repairs from ladders if it’s a low property. Health and Safety might not like it but as long as you’re not too high off the ground there’s no problem. Scaffolding makes the job a lot easier and a lot safer. Also, you can get your materials up on to it so, if you’re ridging, you can get several bunches of sedge up there and you don’t have to keep going down for them. Same with the reed. You can stack several bunches of reed on the scaffolding so it’s easy to get hold of every time you come down the ladder. However, it’s hard work and it can be dangerous. I have had one or two falls in my time. Lucky to be here. I think my worst one was one when I did a job at Ormesby St. Mary in 1992, and I was on my own at the time because my brother was moving house. I’d started work on the small barn and stripped a hole in the roof. I had a break and then I started to thatch the gap in the roof to get it watertight. Things started to look a bit black in the sky, and, as I came up the ladder with three or four bunches of reed on my shoulder, an almighty gust blew down the full length of the scaffolding. It caught the reed on my shoulder, I tried to let go of it but wasn’t quick enough, and the reed pulled me down. I fell backwards from about four metres and just gave up. I thought ‘that’s it, I’m a goner’ but luckily there was a two metre high trellis behind me, and whoever had fixed it to the post had only used small nails so instead of the trellis smashing as I went on to it, it actually popped off the posts. I slid down the trellis, hurt my shoulders pretty badly and sprained my leg so I was hopping about. I couldn’t stop because there was a big hole in the roof and it had started to rain so, with a bad leg and a bad shoulder, I had to get up there, put the tarpaulin over the roof and make it watertight. Then I had to load the truck up with the old reed which was in the owner’s drive, take it to Scratby and burn it. By that time, I’d got soaked to the skin, had a bad shoulder and a bad leg but I didn’t need to go to hospital.
Traditionally, when we take the old thatch off, it’s burnt. We generally find somewhere to get rid of it but it’s becoming harder now because a lot of the farmers are not allowed to take that sort of stuff these days, for environmental reasons. We have tried to find ways of using the old thatch but it’s really difficult because there’s such a huge amount of it. It would be a hell of a job to shred it because it’s quite tough and it’s not economically viable. At the moment the only way we can get rid of it is to burn it. Now, as I’m not doing so much re-thatching, most of the stuff that I get rid of comes from re-ridging and tidying up, and I can dispose of all that on my land.
A new venture
In the 1990’s we decided to branch out and make reed fencing panels. A lot of the modern construction sites, where they were building new properties, liked reed fencing so we started making it. We’d thought we could do it to see us through the winter but the demand came in the spring which was when we really needed to be concentrating on thatching. We tried stocking some through the winter but we never seemed to stock the right sizes. We did it for a year or two and then decided it wasn’t worth it. Also, other people were just doing reed fencing panels so there was a lot more competition, so we decided to concentrate on roof thatching. You need good long reed for fencing panels and it’s a different type from what’s used for thatching. If you’re doing a six foot high panel you need eight foot reed because you lay the reed in to a panel, one handful one way, and one the other, and then you have to cut off the excess that overhangs, so there is some waste.
Thatch and fire risk
Generally there’s fire risk in a thatched property if a chimney is not maintained, if it’s not swept on a regular basis. In a lot of the old cottages there were holes in the chimneys, electrical faults and, recently, a lot of fires have been caused by the new efficient wood burners which create so much heat. It’s not usually a flame that starts the fire, it’s the gases that build up around the chimney flue that ignite. This usually happens after the wood burner has been on all winter, the heat has built up and, if you get an easterly wind which drives everything out and fans the heat, you get combustion and the thatch catches fire. A lot of fires are caused by the new efficient wood burners. These days we put on a fire membrane which is like a roofing felt. It’s got a fire retardant on it which can give protection from 90 minutes up to two hours. If the fire catches on the outside of the thatch the membrane usually gives the fire brigade time to scrape the thatch off and stop it falling into the property, and also stops the water damage. When a thatched property catches fire there’s probably as much water damage as there is fire damage. I have been to a lot of properties where I’m surprised they haven’t caught alight. You’ll see smoke coming out of the thatch and the owner will say ‘I’m concerned about my thatch’. You’ll go up, strip the thatch off round the chimney and the acid in the soot on the inside of the chimney has eroded the bricks so much that there have been holes you can put your hand through into the chimney breast. In some cases the brick is only a few millimetres thick because it’s been eroded away. Years ago, a farmer asked me to have a look at his thatch at Lessingham. He said ‘the old boy lives in there reckon every time, early in the morning when the sun heats up, his thatch steams’. He said ‘I don’t think it’s steam, I think it’s smoke’. We pulled the thatch off round the chimney and it was so charred the only thing that stopped it from burning was the carbon on the thatch because it had built up and had stopped the fire from spreading, but there were holes you could put your whole arms through, both sides of the chimney.
Retirement and the future of reed cutting
My son, Ben, started helping me about ten years ago. I’d hoped that when I retire he’d take over the job but I don’t think it’s going to happen. He doesn’t seem to have the interest that I’ve got, which is unfortunate. He works with me when he can and the rest of the time he looks after the kids which saves them having to pay for childminding. I can’t see Ben carrying on the business when I retire. I’ll carry on for the next year to 18 months and then I think I’ll have to retire because the body is beginning to say it’s had enough. I’m suffering from repetitive strain syndrome, my shoulders, my forearms, my knees, my legs and even my back are now beginning to show the wear from forty odd years of thatching. You’re doing the same thing day in day out and it’s a really physical job.
Several years ago a lot of thatchers came into the trade. At one stage we had too many thatchers but now it’s a concern because there doesn’t seem to be anybody to replace the older guys like me. Dave Farman’s family, at Salhouse, have been thatching for a long time but I don’t think younger family members are going to continue the business. People realise it’s hard work and they don’t really want to do it. There are no proper apprenticeship schemes nowadays. It’s generally down to the individual thatcher to say to an apprentice ‘If you come with me I will show you the trade. Perhaps you won’t earn that much for the first year or two but I will train you.’
The Broads Authority are not doing anything to promote thatching. I think they should promote the traditional crafts but, to give them their due, they tried to help the reed cutters with a reed cutting bursary scheme when they realised there weren’t enough reed cutters. The scheme ran for about five years, with four or five people coming each year, but not many stuck to it. You can’t earn money all year round. You’re reed cutting from after Christmas through to April, then sedge cutting from the end of April through to October, so it’s not full-time work, and it’s also totally weather reliant. Of all those on the bursary scheme only two or three are still reed cutting. The future of the Broads is concerning. Without maintenance of the reed and sedge beds you’re going to lose them and they will become scrub. If they’re not going to cut them for thatch, for commercial reasons, the only alternative is to cut and burn them which seems a bit daft to me. If we’ve got a well maintained reed bed or well maintained sedge bed there’s definitely more wildlife. There’s a lot to think about. Thatchers also have a problem with the supply of hazel. Years ago around here, there were a lot hazel woods which grew underneath the main forest canopy. Hazel was used for different purposes, from furniture to thatching to brotches for straw stacks but, for years now, it has not been maintained and a lot of it has got too old and there’s not enough of it. You need approximately an acre of hazel per thatcher per year. If the hazel is cut on a six or seven year cycle you need six or seven acres of hazel for a thatcher and there’s just not enough around so we now have to rely on imported hazel.
Stephen Aldred (b. 1954) talking to WISEArchive at East Ruston on 18th March 2019.
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