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Something a little different for you this week.


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You’ll recall that up until recently there was a huge spruce tree here, 80′ huge and over twice the height of the house. The branches were close enough to almost touch the roof but it was the shade cast by the tree that was doing the most damage. Moss thrives in such conditions, hastening decay in the surface of the thatch.


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Shady enough for ferns to grow, without soil, above the south facing slope


Thatching is an ancient method of roof construction, the weaving together of whatever vegetation was locally available: from palm leaves in the tropics to straw and water reed in the UK. Ironically it was originally used because it was cheap, often the only roofing material realistically available for the average rural dweller. Sadly it is cheap no longer. Thatching is a labour intensive business and in today’s world we know what that means.

To resurface just one side of our roof would leave us with little change from £10,000. Thankfully there’s a bit of time to save up the pennies, we have about 15 years of life left in it, providing the thatch is properly maintained and has sufficient air circulation. Hence the spruce tree having to come down. Usually it’s the ridge, the top edge of the roof, which is the first to go. It’s a smaller job but ours will need attention in 3-5 years. Still, better than we had feared so another ‘phew’.


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Post industrial revolution, with the population moving increasingly toward living in towns, thatching declined along with the number of thatchers. The last 30 years has seen something of a resurgence. There are approximately 60,000 thatched properties in the UK and 1000 full time thatchers, driven by renewed interest in the preservation of historic buildings, a revival of traditional crafts and the use of more sustainable building materials. All good stuff.

Thatch is a natural insulator. It helps to keep the house warm in winter and cool in summer. On the negative side it’s prone to damage from birds, who nick the straw for their nests or burrow into it for grubs. Mice move in looking for wheat grain and a warm place to spend the night. And how can we overlook the attentions of those wretched squirrels, for whom the roof seems to provide an ideal place to bury their nuts.


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Spars and yelms


Our previous cottage was also a thatch. We had renovation work done there too, on a much larger scale than here. Sharing your home with builders for over a year is no mean feat. At one point, while replacing the oak beam that held the house up in lieu of foundations, the lower half of one wall had to be entirely removed. On Christmas Day, had we so desired, we could have done an Indiana Jones roll from inside the house to the path outside without need of a door. Birds flew through the sitting room and the radiator had icicles hanging from its severed pipe.

In that part of England it was common practice, rare in Devon, to cover the whole roof with chicken wire. Come Spring, a wren took up residence. She was just small enough to fit through the holes in the mesh and, suitably ensconced, she hollowed a nest out of the straw. And what a smart move that turned out to be for not only was the wren superbly protected from predators but she, and later her babies, had lunch on tap. The builders would feed them with pieces of their sandwiches, poking bits up through the gaps in the wire.


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But I digress.

The back of our current roof faces north and thus is more or less permanently in shade. Moss growth here was quite extensive.. along with more ferns! The moss is removed by combing the straw with a plastic rake.


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Work in progress


I can’t even begin to describe the mess. Heaps and heaps of moss, rotten straw and dirt fall off the roof to smother everything down below. Not least anyone foolhardy enough to be walking underneath. Ladders propped on the walls of the terraces and big boots trampling through the borders. Enough to give the poor gardener apoplexy.


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My ginger lily is under there somewhere!!