Thursday, 29 March 2012

A thatcher's touch...

Being at home for the Easter break has softened me somewhat - too much free food and a rather comfortable bed can be blamed for that. So much so that it begun to feel like too much of a task even to sit here an write rubbish that most people probably don't care about. So I decided to throw myself out of the house and go looking for a shoot for my most recent of projects based around the idea of 'touch' (an idea which I wanted to base around trade and crafts). Unfortunately where I live is the sticks, and at first glance it would appear that nothing happens at all; a far cry from Falmouth where one is virtually tripping over interesting people and trades. However, after an hour of aimless wandering (which culminated in me sitting in an empty field full of sheep and dropping a Lastolite reflector in a river) I came across Allan Seabrook working on a thatch in the centre of my village. Perfect. 

I put my best 'interested voice' on and introduced myself and explained my intentions. I was photographing the next day, which came as a surprise to me; always the sceptic I was expecting to run in to a wall of bureaucratic excuses and issues with another health and safety-obsessed tradesman who thinks that I am incapable of climbing a ladder without killing myself. Thankfully I was wrong (which appears to be the case with many of my numerous prejudgements), and neither Allan nor the home-owners had a problem with me photographing him at work. A lesson for you kids - never be afraid of asking. Tune in next week for more of my insightful proverbs...

And so begun my first ever foray in to the world of traditional roof thatching... Which started with a quick spin on the interweb...

Thatching is an extremely old and traditional craft which originated in equatorial countries such as Hawaii, Fiji, Kenya and Korea. Thatching - although it is applied and practised in a multitude of ways - is fundamentally the building of a roof using dry vegetation; straw, water reed, sedge, rushes and heather being the most commonly used. Layering the vegetation as to shed water away from the inner roof of a building, it was only way of roofing available to the majority of the UK and Europe until the late 1800s, when the mass production of Welsh slate provided a stabler material which could be distributed on a wide scale thanks to the proliferation of canals and railways.

Now - in the UK especially - thatching has become a matter of choice; that choice mostly being made by the affluent who enjoy keeping a traditional look to their homes, that want a more ecologically friendly roof, or that have bought an already thatched building. In my home county of Suffolk, one of the few counties in Britain which still maintains a significant number of thatched-roof houses, the specialist trade passed from generation to generation is still a viable and lucrative business - the thatch of an entire roof will cost upwards of a few tens of thousand pounds, depending on the tradesman. One such tradesman is Allan Seabrook, who has been a sole trader for nine years.

Allan became his own boss after completing a five-year thatching apprenticeship, and from the couple of brilliantly sunny days I spent up the scaffolding with him it doesn't seem like such a bad idea. A back up plan for if my career in photojournalism goes to the dogs perhaps...

Tools of the trade: a mallet, shears, a metal steak and a ladder are some of the surprisingly few tools required to create a thatch.

Bendable lengths of wood known as spars act as safety pins when layering the straw.

Sharpening a spar

The aforementioned thatching trade is a traditional one, with techniques being passed down by generations of workers and with apparently no set way of style or terminology - for example, Allan finishes his roof with block ridges, the shape of which are specific to each tradesman. To Allan, they are known as 'scollops'; however this is not true for every thatcher, he just got the name from his teacher, and having never written the word down he couldn't even tell me how it was correctly spelt. This style of 'block ridging' came about during Victorian times, whereby having the thatch ridge finished with a cut shape became fashionable - original thatch ridges would be flush to the rest of the roof. 

Allan begins cutting his block ridge, or 'scollop', by cutting away a its outline. 

The block is then trimmed and shaped according to its position on the roof - each scollop must look as level and equally-sized as possible when seen from ground level. 

The completed block. This particular shape was passed down to Allan by his teacher during his days as an apprentice. No two blocks are the same, and each block ridge style is specific to the craftsman.

I have to say this was one of my more relaxed shoots since being at university - having the location about two minutes from my house made things particularly favourable, and with the recent spate of beautiful weather I may have run the risk of getting a tan in the process. As is the life of a country thatcher (see what I did there?).

With a little hope a few of these images may end up in the Cavendish Magazine, a world-renowned publication spanning all aspects of village life...


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