IT WAS as a boy watching a local craftsman re-thatch his family home that Matthew Higham became fascinated by this ancient art.

He set his heart on learning the skills of the trade, pestered his parents for books on all things thatching, and since the age of 17 he has clambered rooftops and straddled eaves, fulfilling his dream to become a master thatcher.

Matthew, now 41, has thatched six houses already this year and – along with his colleague, Ivor Steel, who he has worked with for nine years – is currently working on the seventh using a wheat reed in the Wiltshire village of West Lavington.

Three miles away as the crow flies, a half-timbered cottage called the Old Bakery, stands with its recently completed golden lid of long straw as testimony to the dedication of these country craftsmen.

INGREDIENTS

Matthew grows 15 acres of Triticale wheat, famed in thatching circles for the hardy straw it produces. For him, this is the ideal crop with which to ply his age-old craft of Wiltshire-style long straw thatching, alongside his use of wheat reed – another basic ingredient of the craft.

“I suppose I am very much a traditionalist,” says Matthew, taking a brief break from his rooftop perch. “Many thatchers are using imported water reed from Europe, but I believe the straw we grow and use is some of the finest material to be had.

“That is not to say there is no place for wheat reed – it depends on the style of the building. Some houses are suited to reed, others to long straw – whichever is used, I feel it is more in keeping with the countryman’s eye than slate or tile, which has been allowed in many cases to replace traditional thatch.

“Some folk use water reed, but long straw is what many of the listed” Wiltshire properties require – otherwise you can change the whole character of the property.”

Matthew began growing his own straw after a shortage in the mid-1990s left him facing a supply “crisis” and forced him to buy from Devon and Cornwall.

“After this setback, I decided the only way to guarantee a stock of traditional long straw was to grow it myself.”

So a few years ago, he rented some land on Salisbury Plain which, with its harsh, chalky soils, produces a sturdy, durable straw ideal for his requirements. “It was a sharp learning curve and we made a few mistakes with our first harvest – but now we have got the hang of it and are self-sufficient in terms of stock.”

Now, with a 1940s reaper and binder, two tractors, several trailers and an iron-wheeled threshing machine called Audrey, Matthew and a team of helpmates each year harvest an average of 25t of thatching straw, selling off the grain for animal feed. The straw is cut slightly earlier than normal when slightly green, then stored in a traditional thatched rick to dry and mature.

New buildings

Meanwhile, it is not only old buildings, many dating back hundreds of years, that require the skill of a thatcher – many architects of small developments in old villages are turning away from tile and slate roofing in favour of this traditional material.

“The enquiries seem to be growing each year and I hope soon to be able to take on a young trainee – he is very keen, and it will be good to pass on the skills to another generation,” says Matthew.