October 24 2014 Latest news:
Friday, August 15, 2014
A fourth generation thatcher has returned to the cottage in south Suffolk that he first worked on as his grandfather’s apprentice more than 30 years ago.
Trevor Death, 56, said he could still recognise his master’s handiwork on the roof of Mead Cottage in Stoke by Nayland as he removed the ageing straw and repeated the same intricate process all over again.
Though decades have passed since he first learned the craft as a teenage apprentice to his father John and grandfather Burt, the skills remain very much the same.
“Nothing much has changed,” said Mr Death.
“It’s more or less the same job as it’s always been – you cannot really change it.”
Mead Cottage, he recalls, was one of the very first large jobs he was entrusted to carry out chiefly on his own, with only occasional supervision from his grandfather.
It is noted as a fine example of thatching and Mr Death says its unique challenges make it a pleasure to work on.
Unlike most thatchers, who now use reed as their material of choice, Mr Death prefers the more traditional choice of straw, which he grows himself, as all commercial varieties of wheat are too short for thatching.
From eight acres of land near Polstead, Mr Death yields about eight tonnes of straw, which is more than enough for the one or two cottages he tends to re-thatch each year. A major job, such as Mead Cottage, will use about a tonne and a half, and will take more than half a year to complete.
Also sourced locally are the hazel spars, which Mr Death coppices each December and uses to pin the straw in place.
The straw is first wetted down, before being gathered together in even length yealms (bundles of straw) and placed tightly on top of one another until the roof is about 16 inches thick.
Further layers are then added to provide the characteristic ridges on the roof’s edges and sheep shears are used to cut it into shape.
Although it has been 40 years since he first learned the craft, Mr Death says each new roof still offers its own interesting challenges and special features to work with.
Although the profession has passed down the family line for at least four successive generations, starting from Mr Death’s grandfather’s step-father, he is likely to be the last to carry on the tradition as neither of his children have learned the skill.
John Prescott, 68, the owner of Mead Cottage, has watched Mr Death’s progress with interest over the past nine months.
“I’m all for it,” he said.
“These old county crafts need to be supported and carried on if possible.
“It’s particularly nice that he grows his own straw, it’s just as it used to be – a self sustaining economy.”