A career ladder for the thatcher years

No job is recession-proof, but thatching is holding up pretty well.

Steven Russell

No job is recession-proof, but thatching is holding up pretty well. Peter Butcher and son Nikk tell Steven Russell why they enjoy the al fresco life, despite the worst the weather can throw at them

PETER Butcher's been stripping “dead” straw from a 16th Century cottage in the heart of the Dedham Vale. Does he ever come across any interesting finds when he's removing material laid 20-odd years earlier? “Well, some people find silver spoons and things like that” - presumably slipped in as good luck charms. “But I found this,” he says, climbing his ladder. At the ridge, silhouetted against the sky, he holds up . . . “A plastic spoon! I think somebody put it in as a joke.”

Essex-born Peter's been a thatcher for about two decades. Born in Loughton, he moved out to the Stansted area and worked in engineering - with multi-spindle machines, to be precise. “I made anything, including bits for Concorde. I would have made millions of the little connector that plugs in the back of your telly - the aluminium ones.” Then he became a born-again thatcher.

“I'd always wanted to do something with my hands and I'd heard about thatching. I was in engineering in Harlow, living in Stansted, about 1988, and everything was going a bit downhill. I took voluntary redundancy and did a course down in Hampshire, and haven't looked back since.”

Was the move prompted by a desire to connect with nature, to do something more earthy and tangible?

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“No, nothing so glamorous as that! I just fancied doing it. I went on a week's training to see if I was any good at it, and it was as if I'd been doing it all my life - just natural, like a duck to water.”

How long did it take to learn the knack?

“I often get asked that question,” he grins, rubbing his hands against the cold. “You can learn what to do in five minutes but it probably takes four years, I suppose, to learn it properly. It's like a lot of the traditional trades: you're always learning. I've still never done two houses the same.”

A family move from Stansted to East Bergholt was part of the masterplan, too, as there was potentially more work available within Constable Country. “There's virtually a thatch in every village around here,” he smiles. After about six months working with other people, round about 1989/1990, he struck out on his own. Nowadays he does about 10 jobs a year, more or less, though it's a bit like asking how long is a piece of string. Some smaller tasks might take just a day or two; then there are things like a major scheme at Dedham that ran for five months.

The current undertaking is a three-week project for the National Trust at Flatford. Bridge Cottage, nestling by the River Stour, is having its ridges repaired by Peter, who's 58, son Nikk and colleague Glenn Baker. The thatch is enjoying a general tidy-up, too. All things being equal, the improvements will see the 16th Century property through for another decade; possibly 15 years.

Peter uses water reed from St Olaves, north-west of Lowestoft, and long straw grown specifically for the purpose on a farm near Framlingham. He reckons he uses about 12 tonnes of the softer-looking straw each year and perhaps 2,000 or 3,000 bundles of reed.

You'd have thought such materials wouldn't prove as durable as hard tiles and slates, but properly-laid thatching is strong, tough, water-resistant and sound-insulating, he says. Straw is normally laid to a minimum depth of 15 inches, reed to at least 12 inches. The topmost ridge of a property might need rethatching after 10 or 20 years. The main “coatwork” could last two or three decades if straw; water reed perhaps 50-70 years.

Thatched roofs tend to be steeply pitched, explains Peter, so water runs off quickly. Bundles and bunches of straw or reed are laid one on top of the other, overlapping like roof tiles.

He pulls a length of reed from the roof of Bridge Cottage. It's been in place more than 20 years, but it's only the bottom three or four centimetres, where the water has dripped off, that are showing signs of exposure to the elements - and it still looks in pretty good nick, all things considered.

The National Trust has had to wait a year or so for Peter and the team; specialist craftsmen are in short supply. “I've probably got a couple of years of work booked up in advance. But you can never rely on it. Everyone wants you to do it, but if there's a problem financially and they can't afford you to do it . . . It's not 100% recession-proof, but it is fairly recession-proof. There's no guarantee - in life there's no guarantee about anything.

The Bridge Cottage repair work is costing �7,000. There's a price to pay for maintaining our heritage, whether it be at a National Trust property or a private home. Peter knows why.

The material is expensive because it's grown specifically for thatchers - a small group of people. “Everything is hands-on; it's very labour-intensive. There are no shortcuts. You can't come along with a machine and do it. The only machine I've got is a drilling machine so I can do odd bits of work on the roofs occasionally. Some of the tools, like that mallet there, I made myself.”

He spends as much time in his barn preparing the straw as he does putting it on the roofs. “They reckon it's 28 times that straw is handled: from the time it's cut to when it's on the roof. That's one of the reasons it's so expensive - because it's handled so many times.”

Most of Peter's jobs are is in south Suffolk and north Essex, though he does travel wider. “When I started, work was a bit tight and a couple of times I went down to the West Country. I've done a few jobs abroad, too, which have been nice. I've been to Ireland a few times; America a couple of times.”

The USA experience was down to the Thatching Advisory Service, which got together a group of specialists and whisked them across the Atlantic to Miami. “And it was this time of year! Fantastic! Another time I went to the British Virgin Islands, and that was really good, too.”

The weather, it has to be said, is one of the main irritants for a thatcher. The week before Christmas was pretty dreadful for them. It wasn't worth trying to start work until 10am because it was too dark, and often frosty, too. The straw got a bit damper than he wanted, and would freeze. “The ladders get icy, the scaffolding is icy, and you have to be a bit more cautious.”

Two years ago, in February, he and his colleagues were working just off the A12, on the Aldeburgh road. “I'd left Glenn and Nikk working on a roof and gone up to Norfolk, on the broads - that's where I get my water reed from - and got a van-load of material. Coming back, they phoned me up to say they were going to have to stop because they were snowed off.

“This band of snow came right across the country from Birmingham, through Cambridge, and left four inches of snow around Aldeburgh. But I was two miles away from them . . . in bright sunshine. You could see the black cloud. When I got there, there was snow everywhere. We lost a few days because of that.”

Once, they went to Cambridge and sat in the van from 8am until 12 noon, waiting for the rain to stop. “It was pouring down. 'Right, 12 o'clock; had enough; we're going home.' We got a mile down the road: bone dry! And it rained all day when we got back the following day. Nothing you can do about it - that's just life when you're outside.”

Peter tends to listen to the forecasts and then make his own judgment about going out. “They've said before it's going to be thick frosts and it hasn't, or there are going to be no frosts and there are. So, just take it with a pinch of salt.”

Cold extremities are one thing; summer can be worst, in a way, “when it's hot and you're stripping a roof out, and you get absolutely filthy and black. You might be stripping a roof that's been there 50 years and it's all dusty and you're sweaty. It aims for you and sticks to you!

“I always go home black; there's not a lot you can do. When I'm carrying straw I get it down my back. When the wind blows it lifts up some straw and dumps it on top of you. You just have to live with it.”

Yes, the weather is just something he has to take in his stride, particularly as one of the main plusses about his occupation is “the satisfaction of being outside and seeing what you're doing. It's lovely being outside: a struggle with the weather, of course, but sooner or later it's going to pick up.

“One of the nicest things, round about March time, is that you can suddenly feel the heat in the sun. You're working on the roof and suddenly you can feel it on your back; and it's lovely. It makes so much difference.”

One of the perks of the job is that the locations are usually very attractive; working away on the banks of the Stour, watched by gently-quacking ducks, sure beats a stuffy office or the inside of a factory.

“I did actually go to one place in Suffolk - I can't remember it's name - but it's the most isolated place. It's in the middle of a field and you can see one house in the distance, and that's it. It is absolutely silent, and all you can occasionally hear is a helicopter or a plane fly across. You're so far from the road you can't hear anything. You can literally hear a piece of straw fall off the roof and land on the ground - which is quite incredible in this day and age.”

Speaking of heights, Peter admits he's never really liked them! But working at roof level is OK; ladders are secured and there's often scaffolding and wooden platforms around the building.

Plastic spoons aside, is there anything else interesting he's come across up on the roofs?

“We've found a few very ancient bottles; and Glenn found a message in an old thatched building we did at Felixstowe. It said 'Go to the chimney and at the back you'll find something secret.' It all sounded very mysterious, but unfortunately it had been boarded up and the owner wasn't prepared to knock it all out just because this piece of paper said something might be revealed. It might not!”

They discovered a priest hole once, up in Norfolk. “It had all been boarded up from the inside and no-one knew it was there, but when we stripped the roof off it was there by the side of the chimney.

“But most of the time we never find anything. I've never found any gold sovereigns or anything like that - unfortunately! We live in hope . . .”

WHILE Peter Butcher understands there aren't enough youngsters entering the profession to replace older craftsmen retiring or leaving, he's certainly doing his bit to swell the ranks of UK thatchers. Toiling alongside him is one of his sons.

Nikk, who has just turned 21, was 16 when he had his first taste of thatching. He'd has a bit of a false start at college, struggled to get a job, and went to work for dad “for a couple of months, just to earn some money. I just stayed with it. It's good fun. It was 'the easy option', but it's turned out all right,” he says, peeling off his coat. Despite the thermometer hovering just above freezing point, it's easy to work up a sweat. Thatching is physical graft.

“There are times you don't fancy it - early mornings and frosty days - but in the summer it's perfect, really: out in the sun every day.” You're also moving from place to place, and each roof presents a different challenge.

Nikk can't really remember his first thatching job, but does think it is quite hard a skill to grasp. “We had one of my mates working with us in the summer and I was trying to teach him and he wasn't really getting it at all.

“The pattern work is probably the hardest bit. The buildings can be centuries old. When you're up there, perfecting a pattern, your lines can look straight; come down and look from the ground and they don't always look so straight and neat!”

He's got friends who are plumbers and electricians, but those trades have never interested him. “It's always in the back of my mind to think of something else I might want to do, or to stop this for a while, but I think generally I'll be sticking with it . . . probably forever! I don't mind, though; it's good.”

There have been a few scrapes, though. A couple of years ago Nikk fell off an icy ladder, one Christmas-time, and landed on his knee. It wasn't broken, but he was off work for a while.

Oddly enough, he says it's sometimes hard sorting out car insurance - not because thatching is a risky way of earning a crust but because the companies don't have that job on their database. “You have to call yourself a 'skilled labourer', or something along those lines, rather than 'thatcher' - or they'll phone you up later and double-check it!”