Although it survives in parts of East Anglia, the tradition of long straw thatching had all but died out in Oxfordshire and surrounding counties until Matthew Williams and David Bragg set up Rumpelstiltskin Thatching, a company devoted to restoring the ancient tradition of long straw thatching to the region. Matt and Dave feature in the second episode of the BBC2 TV series Mastercrafts, broadcast on Friday 19th February at 9pm, and this is an excerpt from the extended interview with them that appears in the Mastercrafts book.
Matt and Dave are eager to emphasise that long straw thatching is truly green. ‘When we use wheat straw we’re using something that’s just a by-product of food production,’ says Matt. ‘We have eight acres of local wood that we coppice for our hazel spars and we’re negotiating with local farmers to get them to grow the sort of wheat we need (the older varieties) so we don’t have to transport it miles across country.
‘Straw thatch is, if you like, the ultimate green material – it’s a superb insulator, it uses a by-product of an important food crop and it looks great!’
In their pursuit of authenticity Matt and Dave have learned to look deep into the past when they start work on a roof.
‘We can read an ancient roof because under the top coat of thatch on a very old house you might find straw that dates back five hundred years or more,’ says Dave. ‘When we get down to that level we see ancient varieties of wheat straw and occasionally rye that might have been used in a year of bad harvest. Whatever was used it had to be local because transport was slow and very expensive.’
Early on in their thatching careers both men noticed that the lower layers of thatch that had survived longest had been put on in a very different way from the method they had been taught. ‘Other thatchers in the area told us that doing things the old way was just too difficult,’ says Matt, ‘but having seen the unbroken long straw tradition that survives in East Anglia we learned by seeing how old thatch had been put on, and slowly abandoned the combed reed techniques we’d been taught.’
Dave and Matt both studied thatching at Knuston Hall, one of the few thatching schools in the world, where long straw thatching is still taught. Matt and Dave discovered that long straw had traditionally been the dominant thatching style throughout the Midlands and the south of England. But even within long straw thatching, different counties and areas had their own distinct and decorative styles.
‘It was so fascinating and it made us determined to stick to the Oxfordshire style, which was relatively straightforward and unadorned – but it is the right style for our area.’
Matt and Dave have a simple explanation for their company’s unusual name: ‘If you remember the children’s story, you’ll know that Rumpelstiltskin was the only person who could spin gold from straw. That’s what we like to think we’re doing!’
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Guy Mallinson, master green woodworker, talks about his contribution to the Mastercrafts TV series. Don’t miss him in the opening episode this Friday, BBC2, 9pm
I run courses in green woodwork, art and craft in a woodland workshop in West Dorset. The courses are designed for all levels of ability and our guests come from all over to enjoy escaping to a beautiful and peaceful environment in which to enjoy the pleasures of hand-making and craftsmanship.
The woodland workshop consists of a number of parachute shelters, tipis and canvas tents with log walls and huge open fire pits – it is warm and cosy in the winter and cool and shaded in the summer. We work all year round in the woods using ancient techniques that require no electricity, glue or chemicals.
It seems like just yesterday that the film crew and trainees left the woodland workshop, but the production company (Ricochet Productions) and the BBC have since been busy getting everything edited and ready for airing. The ‘wood’ episode will be the first in the series to be aired, at 9pm on Friday 12th Feb on BBC2.
It was a fantastic experience and a joy to spend six weeks with the trainees working our way through our courses and discussing the role of traditional craft in the 21st century. Tom, Charles and Sarah worked incredibly hard and we were all delighted with their final projects, as well as being a tad proud of them all! It was strange to go from telling guests that our courses are non-competitive to finding myself having to stand back and let the trainees get on with their final project without helping – as it WAS a competition!
We were delighted to have Mike Abbott here on the final day to judge the work of the trainees. Mike has been working in green wood for many years and wrote the books that helped me on my transition from cabinet-making to green woodwork. We could not have had a more respected green woodworker to decide the winner. I was also pleased not to have to pick between them at the end of six weeks working together!
Our neighbours at Forde Abbey were also incredibly helpful and we were able to spend some time in their woods to select suitable ash trees for felling for their final project – using horses of course. The winning chair (still top secret!) will be on view to the 50,000 members of the public that visit Forde Abbey this year. Quite an accolade for the winner.
Another bonus for me was during my research to get to know and correspond with Robin Wood who, as well as being being a fine and respected craftsman making bowls on a pole lathe amongst other green wood skills and writing books and teaching, also helps run the Heritage Crafts Association. This was founded a year ago and has recently been granted charitable status. With the Mastercrafts series and other public exposure for traditional crafts, I am sure the Association’s establishment has been very timely and will help further spread the word about the value of traditional crafts – be it for heritage, leisure, product, therapy or education.
I hope that you enjoy the series and, if you feel inspired, do sign up for one of our courses and see how you get on compared to the trainees! You can even make exactly the same chair as they did in their training on our ‘Make a chair from a tree’ masterclass course, or for the less ambitious try ‘Carving a wooden bowl’ or ‘Pole lathe turning’: they’re both very popular and great fun! There are lots of other courses for all levels of experience.
We don’t want to spoil the surprise so we’re keeping tight-lipped about the goings-on in the woods but you can see a preview of the series here and read an interview with Monty Don on the BBC website here
We also felt very honoured to be asked to contribute to the fantastic new book being published by David & Charles to accompany the ‘Mastercrafts’ series, which will be launched on 12th February as well.
“Working on the publicity for this book has been a bit of a whirlwind to say the least. Having to keep hush-hush about the book until the BBC announced the programme was particularly hard for me as I was bursting to tell the magazines about it as I knew so many of them would love it! Then the date of the first episode – and therefore the book’s publication date – was brought forward to Friday 12th February, which made everything even more intense. We have had some fantastic interest in the book and have set up some great features and interviews – look out for lovely pieces in Craft & Design magazine, BBC Countryfile, Choice, Grand Designs, Country Homes & Interiors to name just a few, and interviews with the mentors on their local radio and in the regional press. Monty Don will of course be in the national press and on radio/TV talking about the series.
Mastercrafts has been really exciting to work on, not least because the mentors all have such interesting stories about their crafts, but also because the interest out there in rural crafts in general really seems to be growing. It’s been great seeing the numbers on the facebook fan page go up and up and that it has become a real forum for enthusiasts and crafters alike. There is a real buzz about the show and now that the trails have started it’s even more exciting! The advance copies of the book came in this week, and seeing them all finished is just fantastic; the editorial team did such a great job and the images are stunning. I’ve loved working on this project; it’s been a real team effort and the support from the mentors has been invaluable. Go, team Mastercrafts!”
From Stephen Bateman:
Reading through responses and comments on facebook last week, I was struck by how important the sense of satisfaction and reward are from physical exertion amongst those pursuing a rural craft. Robin Wood and Adrian de Montfort both spoke about the gratification they gained from physical effort and contrasted this with “office folk, (…) sweating it out at the gym” which, evoked, for me, the sentiment expressed so well by Monty in a recent interview where he says: “manual work today is channeled into gyms – people going nowhere fast.” Wow, those words are powerful!
It seems an overriding sense of satisfaction in rural crafts is derived from achievement. Crafting something out of nothing and fashioning it into a tangible, well-made and lasting article is what gives purpose, integrity and satisfaction to a craftsman’s work. Colin Broadbent, on facebook last week, gave a wonderful insight into this when he testified that: “seeing a project through from start to finish allows me to sit down tired at the end of the day but with a smile on my face… (and) I earn much (…) less working for myself, but the job satisfaction is priceless.”
Again I see a parallel with Monty’s own admission that “while (a craft) may not be particularly well-paid, the personal rewards in terms of a sense of satisfaction are something you just can’t buy” and “to make a chair from a tree that’s growing – it’s enough to change your life.”
I am sure there is much more we could say to nourish this topic of discussion and I look forward to your testimonials – I am sure we will get some perspectives on this from the commentary in the show, both from the mentors but also from the apprentices – keep your ideas coming, I am eager to hear your stories.
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Stephen Bateman, Publisher of the Mastercrafts book, asks ‘Why give up a comfortable office job to pursue a traditional craft?’
Dear Mastercrafts friends
In less than 2 weeks the long-awaited Mastercrafts series and book will broadcast and publish simultaneously.
The TV series, which we have already glimpsed here, promises to disclose the serene quality of another, more creative, forgotten but re-emerging and reasoned way of life; a way of life that is being rediscovered by everyday people in rural communities where traditional rural crafts are being embraced in favour of meaningless office jobs on the end of frenzied commuter lines.
Following my post on the Mastercrafts Facebook page a week ago, I have set out to uncover the personal motivations that are driving so many people to reassess their working lives and opt to pursue a craft skill they value, even when the financial rewards are slimmer than they are used to.
Responses to my post last week helped me establish a clearer understanding of the higher drivers in people forcing this change to occur, and, over the course of the next 10 days, I will endeavour to broaden and extend the ideas on these motivations which, I hope, will help answer some the questions so many of us ask ourselves everyday, like: “How can I reach fulfillment and still earn money?” and “What will I have to show for myself when my working life is over?” I will post one thought a day until the program airs and hope that you, my fellow craft enthusiasts, will respond with your opinions, testimonials and anecdotes.
This is my first thought: Permanence
I believe that people who excel in a rural craft do so and love their craft because they achieve and enjoy a greater sense of permanence from connectedness. Working with their hands and minds, thinking and shaping with hands and tools simultaneously to transform materials, releases, I believe, a deeper sense of connectedness. It is hard to describe to anyone who has not experienced this symbiosis but the feeling is truly addictive and is capable of putting one into a sort of trance.
I can vouch for this. When I have worked wood for a long time and feel I have achieved some measure of mastery, I feel myself after some hours, enter a state of contemplation and ecstasy, in which I shut off from the world outside and happily forget to do the mundane things such as eat and rest.
The feeling I am describing is something similar to that which I believe T.S Eliot describes in The Four Quartets, when, in his poem, he talks about being “At the still point of the turning world.”
A similar evocation comes from another author and craftsman I had the pleasure of reading this summer in the lovely little book titled “Delight”, and published exclusively as a exclusive collection for Waterstone’s. In this little book, David Linley, the bespoke furniture maker and chairman of Christie’s, reminds us wisely that “you don’t need constant change to be happy, you just need things to last.”
Likewise the modern philosopher Alain de Botton, in his book “The pleasures and sorrows of work” points to the satisfaction that comes from reshaping a part of the world into an object of permanence which he describes as “the stable repository of (…) skills and an accurate record of (the) years, (…) collected together in one place, rather than strung out across projects which long ago evaporated into nothing (that) one could hold or see.”
I would be interested to hear anyone’s personal account of their communion in work.
If you would like to, do leave a comment below, or join in the discussion with over 500 other supporters of traditional crafts on the Mastercrafts Facebook page
Find out more about the book and pre-order here