Hope Cove, Devon
An experienced thatcher told me early on in my apprenticeship: “You’ll learn to hate the wind more than anything.” And after five years of working on Devon roofs I’m inclined to agree with him: rain is our more obvious enemy, but rain doesn’t blow the wheat out of your hand or bowl you sideways off your ladder.
On really windy days like this one, you can’t go on the roof. In spite of the warm spring sunshine, a howling south-westerly is whipping up white horses on the Atlantic and training the coastal trees into even more diagonal contortions.
I have come to investigate a thatched cottage near the fishing village of Hope Cove, in South Devon: a dip in the roof suggests that a rafter may have collapsed. I need to go into the attic to check the roof timbers – an awkward, dusty job, but also a chance to get out of the wind.
Traditionally a layer of thatch – the basecoat – is left in place each time a roof is re-thatched. Seen from the inside, it is usually a mess of desiccated wheat and cobwebs.
In very old buildings this deep layer can be blackened – a relic from a time before chimneys, when smoke would escape through a hole in the roof. The thatcher who warned me about the wind once found the remains of a cat buried deep in the thatch as a good luck charm.
Crawling along inside the attic, I take care to avoid the sharp ends of the spars – hairpin-shaped hazel fixings – which jab through the basecoat from all sides. The beam of my headtorch picks up the cause of the problem: one of the rafters, an ancient, round length of hazel, has snapped, and the thatch is pouring through the breach like a fossilised waterfall.
I pick up a piece of the broken rafter; the smooth bark is like iron. but the heartwood crumbles to dust between my fingers.
I pause and listen. In the bright world outside the wind still rages, but in here, under a three-foot blanket of thatch, it is reduced to a muffled whisper.