THATCHING NOW FAR FROM DYING CRAFT
Thatching is a craft best
learned from a master of
the skill but new entrants
to thatching can gain
too, as Tessa Gates found
when she met some modern-
day apprentices at Britains
only school of thatching
SO you want to be a thatcher – one of the 800-1000 people who keep the cottages of Britain weather tight and chocolate box beautiful. To start you will need to find someone already successful in the trade prepared to train you "on the job", for this skill takes years to learn.
"It takes about five to seven years to master," says Peter Evans of The Countryside Agency. Peter is head of craft training workshops, and he speaks amid straw and water reed in a barn at Knuston Hall, Irchester, Northants, the only place in Britain where apprentice thatchers can gain a National Vocational Qualification – NVQ2.
Here they can take part in the New Entrants Training Scheme that recognises the realities of the industry and spreads 12 weeks training over two years, running the week-long courses during the winter months when their employers are under less pressure of work. Throughout the two years, when they are learning the job as they work, they will also be assessed and advised out on-site and have their work photographed by the Countryside Agencys tutor/assessors who are experienced working thatchers themselves.
Trainees will have put in at least six months ground work with a thatcher before starting the NVQ course and need to be aged 23 or under as funding stops at 25. At Knuston Hall they will find themselves in a group of six working on practical projects learning the basic skills from ground height, progressing to more complicated features such as hips and valleys before eventually practising them on the structures outside the barn at normal roof height.
"About 30 to 40 apprentices a year come here but we train them in groups of six on each week long course as the work is so intensive," says instructor Roger Scanlan. A working thatcher himself, he cajoles and encourages the youngsters into getting things right, and says they learn from their own and each others mistakes. "Sometimes when I can see something is going wrong I let them run on a bit in the hope that the penny will drop before I have to tell them," he admits.
The apprentices stay in the halls of residence at Knuston. "In the evenings they get lectures and assignments and they might get time for a beer or two in the bar."
* All worthwhile
Certainly the people on the course when Farmlife called seemed to be enjoying everything about it. All male on this week – although six females have gained thatching NVQs here – they were finding it very worthwhile. Chris Jenkins from the New Forest area of Hampshire says his boss has noticed the difference in his work since he has been attending the course and even picked up a tip or two from him.
Chris thinks there is a real future for him in thatching. " I trained at college for two years in gamekeeping but couldnt get a job. Then I saw an ad in the local paper placed by a thatcher and thought I would like to try that. I have been working for him for 12 months and its been absolutely fabulous. The firm has a full order book until 2004."
It is hard to say what a thatcher will eventually earn as most are self or family employed and it will depend on the locality they work in. New entrants could expect to earn between £16,000 and £24,000 after three or four years.
There is renewed interest generally in thatching and local authorities and heritage bodies are trying to ensure that home owners stick to the styles and materials traditional to an area when they need new thatch. At Knuston Hall apprentices get the chance to work with water reed, which produces a flatter harder outline; combed wheat reed – which is long straw sorted so all the ends butt together; and long straw, which is mixed with water then taken onto the roof in yelms. It is the long straw that gives the softer rounded "chocolate box" look beloved of painters and tourists. Apparently the thatched cottages of olde England are second only to Buckingham Palace as an attraction for foreign tourists.
* Numbers grown
"In the 1950s thatching was a dying trade – there were only about 300 thatchers and the average age was 57. Now there are between 800 and 1000 and average age is 37-40," says Peter Evans. The Countryside Agencys training courses have an important role to play in keeping rural skills alive and contributing to the local economy. Helping small businesses prosper and create more jobs is one of its key aims.
"Our New Entrants Training Scheme, which covers seven trades, is government assisted. It takes trainees employed by rural firms. The employers do not have to pay although in effect they are losing money as they put in all the on-the-job training and lose labour while the trainee is on the course," explains Peter. "It is the modern version of an apprenticeship."
Inquiries: Craft Training (01722 336255).