Thatching – an old skill in a new world – Dave Symonds
Sue Thomas meets master thatcher Dave Symonds
Published in November ’12
As the sun rises over the rooftops, one man and his crew stand aloft, carefully attaching bundles of reeds to wooden supports. It’s a skill from ancient times but one that still thrives in Dorset through the skill of generations of thatchers. Veteran thatcher, Dave Symonds, from Chideock, has worked on many large thatched buildings in the area during his 45 years in the business, including Woodsford Castle and Thomas Hardy’s cottage in Dorchester. When we met up, his current project was a substantial renovation of the Manor Yard development for the Symondsbury Estate in the heart of picturesque Symondsbury village.
Dave began his apprenticeship working for the local thatcher in Symondsbury at the age of fifteen in the mid 1960s. ‘Thatching back in those days,’ he says, ‘was never thought to be any different to farm work or general construction – there was none of this magic about it that there is today because it was a case of needs must. We were still thatching hay ricks and straw ricks before I was on the roofs.’
It was a very different world then because many of the local properties were either owned by farm workers, or were tenanted cottages. Every job that was done needed to last the maximum length of time as money was tight. Dave remembers spending a lot of his early years getting people out of trouble with urgent repairs on their roofs, rather than re-thatching.
The type of ownership has changed more recently as properties are being bought for retirement or as second homes by people from outside the local area. This has generated new work that probably wouldn’t have existed thirty years ago. ‘There is a different client now who wants re-thatching. There are cases around here that do make me shudder a bit though, because I know that two days repair would give it another eight to ten years’ life,’ says Dave forthrightly.
There are 72 thatched properties in his parish of Chideock alone, and many more close by. With plenty of repair work, as well as large projects, Dave has progressed into growing thatch for his own use, to achieve a longer-lasting roof. Growing thatch is a slow process; the reed is planted in the September of one year and harvested the following July. It then has to go through a maturing phase, known as the ‘sweating process’, sitting in a barn to allow it to dry out properly. The reeds are then passed through a vintage thrashing machine to remove the grain and any weeds and leaves from it to achieve a usable bundle of thatch. The thatch is rarely used until the following January, so it’s a big investment.
Dave explains, ‘We planted sixty acres this year with the idea of achieving something like forty acres of usable crop because so much can happen to it in the growing process. The winds can knock it over, the heavy rains in May or June can crumple it down, or bend the straws. Just before harvest we look at it to see if it is a usable crop or not, and I’ve had it where we planned to cut it in the next few days, and a storm’s come along and flattened it. It then becomes useless for thatching. So I know we plan to grow sixty acres but I know we’re never going to achieve a maximum cut – because I’m fussy about what I cut.’
While this year’s crop is growing, half of last year’s crop is being used to thatch the large roofs of the Manor Farm development in Symondsbury. The former stable block and old milking parlour will become new bed and breakfast units and a cafe to serve the village and hungry guests. ‘This job at Symondsbury is massive in the thatching world. Two runs of thatch at 100 foot long each. In terms of thatching it’s a nice one to do because once we’ve stripped it all off and the carpenters have put the new roof on, we’ve got a level playing field to put our thatch on. We’ve no undulating wood underneath, as the old battens would be. We can achieve, hopefully, the perfect job because we’ve got the perfect base,’ Dave explains.
Woodsford Castle is one of the biggest and the highest thatched houses in the area. Dave and his team have been working on a four-year project there, taking a quarter of the roof per year. Due to finish this year, this Landmark Trust project has used the best possible materials. Dave explains, ‘We’re using water reeds there, imported from Austria, to maximise the life of the roof. The expense of scaffolding and lifting gear to get everything up there is massive, and not something to be done too regularly.’
The reeds that Dave and his team of four use in West Dorset last for about 25 years. Reed life varies depending on the aspect of the property or the pitch of the roof. After 45 years in the trade, Dave can tell which properties are going to last, regardless of the quality of the materials. He says, ‘The ones which are in a valley, near a stream, overhanging by trees and not in the open aspect: you can work hard on those but know full well that in 22 years they’ll need re-thatching because they stay wet for a long time. Some of the properties on the top of hill get a right bashing with the wind and the weathers but they’ll last longer because within an hour of getting soaking wet they’ve dried out again.’
It is a craft that marks the passage of time. Dave reflects, ‘I’ve thatched Thomas Hardy’s cottage in Dorchester for the National Trust. In actual fact, it’s been done twice by me in my lifetime. The first lot wore out; the second lot is on there slowly decomposing again.’ Maybe his son, who’s followed his father into the family business, will thatch Hardy’s cottage the next time.