Meet Ted Parks - Master Thatcher. Robert Hesketh meets a Somerset Master Thatcher

PUBLISHED: 12:07 26 January 2010 | UPDATED: 16:16 20 February 2013

Using a leggat to push thatch into place makes the roof more secure and waterproof

Using a leggat to push thatch into place makes the roof more secure and waterproof

Join Robert Hesketh as he goes 'up in the world' to meet Somerset Master Thatcher Ted Parks, and discovers that you need more than a head for heights in his line of work.

Join Robert Hesketh as he goes 'up in the world' to meet Somerset Master Thatcher Ted Parks, and discovers that you need more than a head for heights in his line of work.

Thatch is integral to the Westcountry landscape and forms a vital element in the region's rich heritage of historic buildings. Most Somerset thatch, from farmhouses to cottages, barns and inns, is found in a broad swathe from Exmoor along the Devon border to Taunton, and eastwards along the Dorset border via Ham stone country.

A score of Somerset firms keep thatching a living tradition. Their techniques, tools and materials have remained essentially unchanged over centuries because they are the best for the job, as I found out when talking to former Chairman of the Somerset Master Thatchers Association, Ted Parks.

"I've enjoyed working with traditional materials," said Ted, who began as an apprentice on the Holincote Estate in 1959 and has had his own thatching firm on Exmoor since 1971. "Locally grown combed wheat reed is the traditional Westcountry thatching material. Roofing with water reed is really an East Anglian tradition - they have huge reed beds there.

"If we could get sufficient quantities of good wheat reed, I'd always prefer to work with it. Up to last year, when the cereal harvest was so bad, the majority of our work was in wheat reed. Much of this was locally grown."

Whether wheat, rye or triticale (a hybrid of the two) is used, thatchers need traditional long-stemmed varieties, explained Ted. They should be grown with low nitrate levels (too much encourages the stem to outgrow its strength) and be harvested with a reaper/binder. This is to prevent the stems being bruised or bent, leaving their thicker butt ends all facing one way, which gives the thatch uniform appearance and improves its waterproofing properties. After harvesting, the crop should be left to dry in stooks and carefully ricked - two more skilled and labour intensive jobs.

Although English Heritage, the National Trust and Exmoor National Park are usually opposed to using water reed on Listed buildings, arguing it is not the traditional material in the western counties, it has become more common here in recent years. Tough to work with, water reed has a reputation for durability. Although limited quantities have been harvested on the Somerset Levels and Porlock Marsh (before the sea breached the pebble ridge there), neither these supplies nor Norfolk reed could meet English demand. Thatchers increasingly source water reed from Poland, Russia and Turkey because nitrate run-off has spoilt supplies in some other parts of Europe.

Whilst the relative merits of water and wheat reed are debated, it's hard to tell them apart on a roof, especially if the water reed 'overcoats' old thatch in the same traditional fashion as wheat reed. After a year's weathering the two materials also have much the same colour.
Ted is emphatic that it's reed quality that counts, and that varies from year to year and place to place. Naturally, craftsmanship is the other key element in making good thatch. Care and skill in securing it against wind and rain are vital. Ted and his firm use steel crooks and twine - baler twine these days - to hold down the initial layers of thatch. With water reed they also use modern screw fixings. Then they further strengthen the roof with traditional handmade hazel or willow spars, driven home like large staples.

Ted largely sticks with the thatcher's time-honoured tools. He has the same spar hook he was given by his old boss in 1961 and a second-hand shearing hook he picked up in Barnstaple market for 4, even though he says he would have paid 100 for it. However, he has retired his old wooden leggat, the paddle-shaped tool for pushing and striking the reed into position, and adopted a lighter aluminium one, shaped and grooved to the old pattern.
Similarly, Ted uses lightweight aluminium ladders, though his thatcher's biddles - the small hooked ladders used on the roof itself - are still in wood.

This all sounds simple enough and even looks it when you watch an experienced thatcher at work. Appearances can be deceptive.

Although some training courses are available, there is no substitute for a traditional apprenticeship with a master thatcher. Master Thatchers' Associations insist members have a minimum of four years' experience and can show their skill on three different roofs, as well as abiding by a code of conduct aimed to promote the trade's reputation.
"All our apprentices have served four years," continued Ted. "As with any skilled job you need time to learn thoroughly; to work on a variety of roofs and handle your tools and materials in a variety of situations."

Some Places to see thatch in Somerset
Towns and villages: Selworthy, Bossington, Porlock, Luccombe, Minehead, Dunster, Dulverton, Isle Abbots and Muchelney
Inns: Castle Cary, George; Curry Rivel, Olde Forge Inn; Porlock Weir, Ship Inn; Winsford, Royal Oak
English Heritage: Muchelney Abbey (thatched latrine). 01458 250664
National Trust: High Ham, Stembridge Tower Mill (thatched windmill); Muchelney, Priest's House. 01458 253771
Peat Moors Centre: Westhay (reconstructions of Iron Age houses with wattle, daub and thatch). 01458 860697

Further Information
Somerset Master Thatchers Association: Ted Parks, Mead House, 104 Periton Lane, Minehead, Somerset, TA24 8DZ.
01643 704939,
National Society of Master Thatchers:
Book: Cob and Thatch, The Inside Story, Robert Hesketh, Bossiney Books, Launceston, 2007

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