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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The book tie in to the Mastercrafts BBC2 TV show is reaching the end of the production process; the final pages are being checked and it will be sent off to the printer within days. One last check on press and finished copies should be available in early February. Here’s a preview of the cover, featuring Matt Williams of the wonderful Rumpelstiltskin Thatching in Oxfordshire. Matt and David Bragg are committed to preserving regional styles of thatching, and as such the majority of their work consists of straw thatching in Oxfordshire and the surrounding counties. More about Matt and David’s work later.