Guaranteed a roof over his head

31st March 2000 at 01:00
MATT Williams became a thatcher by accident.

He answered a job advert in a newsagent's window calling for a roofer's assistant. The last thing he expected was to be learning an ancient rural trade.

It was, he admits, a happy accident. "It's nice to be working outside, doing something that people are interested in. Everyone who walks past has got some comment to make."

Matt, 25, from Witney, Oxfordshire, is one of a handful of apprentices doing the Countryside Agency's thatching course - the only accredited course for thatchers in the UK.

This takes place at Knuston Hall, a residential college in the heart of the Northamptonshire countryside. Apprentices get a chance to work on mock-ups of thatched roofs of every shape and size, including gables, valleys and dormer windows.

They get 12 weeks training over two years, leading to an national vocational qualification level 2.

"It's about as intensive as thatching gets," says Matt. "It's quite laid-back really, but you do learn a lot from seeing what everybody else is doing."

Roof thatching is far from being a quaint but dying rural craft, says Roger Evans, a tutor at Knuston Hall. He has been a working thatcher for 32 years. And there are still enough old roofs in Northamptonshire and Bedfordshire to keep his order books fll for the next two years.

Most thatched-roofed cottages are subject to conservation orders, putting the thatcher in constant demand. In some parts of the UK and abroad - particularly in the United States - thatching can bring a good living.

"It's quite a secure career to be going into," says Roger.

Entering the trade is less easy. The only way in is to find a thatcher with a vacancy. The apprenticeship can also be a lengthy business - progressing from beginner to master can take up to 10 years.

Having a head for heights helps and you need to be quite hardy because you can freeze on a rooftop in winter and bake in the summer. Patience can also be an advantage. Thatching a cottage roof can take up to six weeks and work stops whenever it rains.

Roger Evans says: "It's so complex - no two roofs are the same. One year you might have a load of straw for a specific roof. But next year the straw might be longer, thicker or more tapered."

The NVQ in thatching is one of a number of traditional rural training courses run by the Countryside Agency. Others include forgework, saddlery and leatherwork, and wheelwrighting.

The Countryside Agency, John Dower House, Crescent Place, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, GL50 3RA. Telephone 01242 521381 Knuston Hall: trainee thatchers

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