P’s only concession to decoration (she says it was always a very plain roof) is to have the criss-cross design across the top. Now for the back of the house. Only the ridge will be done – the rest is sound, and can wait (thatch is astonishingly costly!) for a few more years. The new thatch will darken quickly to match the old.
This is long wheat straw, grown for the purpose in Ilminster, Devon. Once, cut, cleaned, thrashed and combed, it is bundled for delivery, after which it must be sorted into smaller bundles – the yelms – for roofing.
Any fixing of battens or laths is done with screws; the banging in of nails on such old roofs risks bringing down interior ceilings. Simon, who has had just such an experience, gets his drill. We joke about ruining the image of thatching needing nothing but centuries-old tools, and Simon assures us that his electric drill has been handed down the generations from his great-great-great grandfather. That’s all right then; we like to know the provenance of everything.The spars remain unchanged over the centuries; twisted hazel sticks, they hold the thatch in place. The work does not go unsupervised. P’s dogs keep a watchful eye on the work; grand old lady Ellie, recovering well from recent surgery, and young Annie, who loves to have her photograph taken, make sure Simon gets on with things at a cracking pace. And he does. Yesterday’s wild, wet, windy weather reminded us that winter will soon be upon us, and we must be ready.
I love a new experience, especially if it’s of the non-scary food type. My lovely neighbour introduced me to jaggery recently, which was such a treat, especially when heated in a pan, with the addition of roughly chopped walnuts, cooled on greaseproof paper, and broken into little chunks. Very, very moreish, I can tell you.
But I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that I’d never eaten a persimmon. If you have, then you can stop reading now, because I will sound even sillier than I feel.
A friend told me, years ago, that they made your mouth “go like saying the word’ – and she made an astringent moue – which discouraged me from trying. Usually I will try any sort of fruit, but persimmons (or, as Israeli fruit farmers named them, sharon fruit) never appealed, somehow.
Described as “fragrant”, we didn’t expect much; fragrant? slightly sweet, perhaps, and, like the disappointing star fruit, without much flavour?
But what a revelation! Crisp crunchy skin, delicately flavoured flesh. There are two types; these were fuyu, the non-astringent ones, ready to eat as soon as ripe; hachiya, the astringent type, must be left to ripen until almost bursting. The taste reminded me of fresh dates more than anything, and was later to discover that persimmons have been grown in Britain since 1629, when they were called date-plums. I wish I’d known about them sooner.
And aren’t they pretty?
Now I’ve discovered them and the many recipes on the ‘net (incl. this from Martha Stewart), I shall explore their possibilities. Maybe combining them with jaggery…..
In yesterday’s drizzle the thatcher was away, preparing his materials, forming and tying each bundle of wheat straw into a yealm (or yelm…. alternative terms and spelling are plentiful for every stage of the work). Today he starts with the eaves wadds (or bottles) - a yealm tied at the small end, which sets the tilt of the eaves and gables. He works on the end of the cottage roof where, to P’s considerable alarm, the rain came in recently. Later he will form the brow – this determines the pitch of the roof, to be topped by the ridge, which must generally be replaced more frequently than the main roof. The area in between he calls the main lines.
He dresses each bundle using a legett (legate, leggett). Another tool that has remained unchanged since mediaeval times.
A cheerful, pleasant man, Simon the thatcher; very willing to answer questions. He tells us that birds will nest in thatch if they find a little hole under the eaves when looking for insects, but that generally the straw is too stiff to make good nesting material to take away.
Progress is made, in decidedly chilly sunshine; today is the first really cold day we’ve had. The Gardener rings me from the Quantocks, about two overcoats-worth colder than here, and is glad of the sun.
P has waited for months for busy Simon to become available, and is relieved to be getting the work done before the winter; a thatched roof must be looked after with especial care. She tells me that the last time it was completely re-thatched, it cost exactly one-third of the cost of having only half the roof repaired today.
I have forgotten to ask if Simon will put a trademark finial (look HERE for examples) on top of the ridge when he finishes the job; a question for next time, perhaps.