Up on the roof with a Stowmarket thatcher

PUBLISHED: 11:20 30 June 2010 | UPDATED: 17:28 20 February 2013

Up on the roof with a Stowmarket thatcher

Up on the roof with a Stowmarket thatcher

Simon Woodmore is a Stowmarket-based thatcher with 26 years experience. Here he explains the history and skills of his trade

Simon Woodmore is a Stowmarket-based thatcher with 26 years experience. Here he explains the history and skills of his trade

Where are you based and how long have you been a thatcher?
I have been thatching for 26 years now since I was 17 , straight after sixth form. Im based in Stowmarket and have a yard at a local farm on the outskirts of the town. I live nearby in Combs Ford.
I started doing some harvesting work over the summer holidays as temporary work and was taken on full-time after harvest as I worked hard. I was also offered a joinery apprenticeship at the same time.

Tell us about the thatching tradition in Suffolk. How long has it been going on and in which parts of the county? All over presumably?
Suffolk is a traditional long wheat straw area as this was a by product of farming. Farm workers used to thatch the straw stacks before tarpaulin sheets were around, and they would thatch their work-tied houses or cottages too. This was a very simple form of thatching, not like todays fancy and intricate designs, and they used to need re-doing every five years or so.
The standards and styles have changed a lot over the last 50 years or so. Many roofs were converted to Water Reed. This was quite popular in the 1960s as transport became cheaper and more easily available. Being a far superior material than long wheat straw, it will last 45-60 years with little maintenance, whereas wheat straw will do 20- 25 years at most. Councils have now put restrictions on converting existing wheat straw roofs into reed, to try and keep some of the traditional long wheat straw cottages. Norfolk has a higher percentage of water reed roofs as this is grown a lot around wet, marshy flat lands and fens, and is typically known as Norfolk Reed.

Is a thatched roof expensive?
It is about four times more expensive than tiling or slating. This is due to the labour involved, and the time it takes to thatch.

We hear of quite a lot of thatched roof fires. Is there a high risk of fire?
There are many fire risks with thatch, mainly as it highly combustible, and most thatch cottages/houses are of a wooden frame too.
Common causes are chimney stacks getting too hot or from damaged or worn through cement fillet to the stack. This can cause ambers or hot soot to leak through the gaps and ignite the thatch. And electrics are a major cause as well.
Insurance for thatch is high too. An average claim for a thatch fire is 315,000, as opposed to a normal modern tiled house is 11,000. Usually the house needs rebuilding as it takes off all the first floor, and the amount of water that is poured on the building also causes lots of damage. There are lots of fireproofing materials on the market now, barrier foils, and fireproof cloths, and sensors for the loft spaces.

Presumably you can only really work in the spring/summer months?
We work right through the year, but do shorter hours in the winter and autumn. This time of year is the nicest before it gets too hot.

I appreciate properties come in all shapes and sizes but is there a rough average for time spent working on a house?
Our average roof is a two to three bed cottage, which will take approximately six weeks to do with two of us working on it. However, they do come in all shapes and sizes. We are currently re-ridging the largest thatched house in Suffolk. This is only a ridge and repair on a Water Reed roof and will take approx 10 weeks. It is in Aldeburgh near the sea front and we have a nice cool breeze whilst working.

It is more a craft and very much a way of life. Its quite hard to let someone else on to the roof you are working on, as in all craftspeople work differently.

Hopefully its a trade that is not dying out ... presumably there are young thatchers coming through?
Trade is far from dying out, we are booked up for over a year. It is as popular now as it has ever been, with rural older properties selling at a premium. I have a young trainee at the moment. He is 17 in a few weeks time and has been working with me on and off for almost a year. I just took him on full time about two months ago when the weather changed. But the true test of an apprentice is their first winter, and if they get through that.

Once complete, a newly-thatched roof must give you and the owner great satisfaction?
It is very satisfying for both us and the homeowner as they usually have to wait some time to be booked in. Then the roof and garden is a complete mess for a few weeks. But it all comes together for the final result, and they are very pleased with the transformation of their cottage. From a dark mossy mulch to a bright new yellow thatch with a fancy pattern on top.

Is there a thatching job of which you are particularly proud?
We are proud of most jobs, but the ones that were very bad or moss-covered when we started usually look their best once we have finished with them.

If anyone is keen to become a thatcher where should they go or what should they do?
Its quite hard to get into thatching. It was always passed down through family, more so 20 to 30 years ago, and most thatchers are one man bands, there are not very many large companies. Even the larger firms are very family orientated, and dont often take on non-family members. I think most thatchers do like the peaceful, tranquil life and not having too much stress and worry of running a big business. It is more a craft and very much a way of life. Its quite hard to let someone else on to the roof you are working on, as in all crafts people work differently. Most local thatchers can always tell anothers work purely because of their style, ridge patterns and even the way the decorative rods are fixed on to the roof.

Why is it important for customers to engage a proper craftsman to thatch their roof?
We are a company with a very good local knowledge of traditional Suffolk thatching and a good knowledge of local materials and styles. I have 26 years experience and am passionate about sourcing local materials, although there are cheaper foreign alternatives.
We still cut and make our own traditional broaches, which also plays a part in local woodland management. Our reeds are sourced only from only suitable reed beds in Norfolk. It is a very good, environmentally sound form of roofing as opposed to tiling and slating with very good insulation properties. Half of my work is now returning to roofs I first thatched some 20 years or more ago. We are full members of the National Master Thatchers Society. This is a National Guild for master thatchers, who have to have to have their work vetted to the highest standards to become and remain a member. We offer very competitive rates for our work.

To find out more visit the website at www.brettvalethatchers.com.

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