Coun­try Di­ary

Hope Cove, Devon

The Guardian - - WEATHER - Tom Al­lan Fol­low Coun­try di­ary @gdncoun­try­di­ary

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.

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