Up on the roof

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Far from drawing life’s short straw, Master Thatcher Mike Howe switched career to own an artisan business and teach future generations an ancient skill

Master Thatcher Rohan Hennessy carries the traditional thatcher’s hanging ladder
All images: Courtenay Hitchcock

Mike Howe’s ‘office’ this week is a stunning 16th century cottage in the heart of the beautiful village of Abbotsbury. From high on the roof, he has uninterrupted views of rolling hills and the sea beyond. ‘Homeowners often join me on the scaffolding to get a bird’s eye view of the area where they live,’ he says.
Owner of Dorset Master Thatcher, Mike and the two-man team at his Dorset Master Thatcher business are unlikely ever to be out of work. The county has more thatched properties than any other area in Britain – almost a tenth of all thatched roofs, according to Thatching Info.com. That’s ‘around four for every square Dorsetshire mile’ says the website.

Apprentice thatcher James Hogg loves the work – but is working on his fear of heights.

I wouldn’t mind a go
Despite the physical graft of thatching and working in all extremes of weather – summer’s searing heat meant starting at dawn – Mike believes that ’to have a job where we can be artisans is wonderful.’ He came to this most rural of professions in his mid-30s, having originally trained as an engineer. ‘Being indoors, clocking in and out, wasn’t for me.
I went into farming, working in Wales, Kent and Canada before coming to Dorset. I was herding cows one day and I saw a thatcher on a roof. I thought I wouldn’t mind a go.
‘I wrote letters and finally got a job working for a local thatcher, Glen Holloway.’
Becoming a Master Thatcher takes time. With no formal apprenticeships available, Mike learned on the job. It took him ten years ‘to really get into the groove’ and qualify as a Master Thatcher himself.
To be a member of the prestigious Master Thatchers’ Association, thatching skills are regularly assessed to ensure all work is completed to the highest standard of craftsmanship. Being a Master Thatcher is the kitemark of good workmanship.

Master Thatcher Mike Howe with James Hogg and previous apprentice (now Master Thatcher) Rohan Hennessy.

Mike says: ‘With a career shift like this in my late 30s, people were concerned that I wouldn’t cut it. I proved them wrong and here we are now!’
Mike took over the business from his mentor, Glen, and now employs two young men. Like Mike, Rohan Hennessy knew engineering was not for him. An outdoor occupation was calling and he began working with Mike nine years ago. Now 29, he too is a proud Master Thatcher.

Mike, James and Rohan on the Abbotsbury roof they had just finished

Slow training
Rohan deftly shows me how he uses a traditional twisting spar – a piece of wood with two sharp pointed ends used to staple a layer of straw into the roof. He tells me: ‘There’s so many techniques when it comes to thatching, you never stop learning. It’s really rewarding to see a thatch you’ve worked on still looking great many years later. The longevity makes all the effort worthwhile.’
The huge variety of techniques are one reason it takes so long to gain Master Thatcher status – you can only be assessed for a skill when you have actually worked on that particular kind of roof. James Hogg was just 15 when he started working for Mike, raking up straw. Now he is doing a bricklaying apprenticeship – there are still no thatching apprenticeships in Dorset colleges – and working with Mike and Rohan two days a week.
He says: ‘I love working with my hands. Rohan and Mike are really great to work with too. I’m a bit scared of heights, which is a challenge! But I’m gradually getting more confident.’

Master Thatcher Rohan Hennessy checking the roof

A thatcher’s mark
The history of thatching goes back thousands of years and Mike is determined that the age-old skills should continue.
‘It’s important to have new generations learning these traditional skills and continuing historic crafts.
‘If we take a roof apart and there’s some spectacular work underneath it from craftsmen gone before us, we document it. It’s a brilliant teaching tool for James.’ says Mike.
Artistic flair really kicks in when it comes to creating roof-top creatures originally used as the thatcher’s mark, an advertisement for who did the work. ‘We love creating signature finials for customers. You can buy them, but we make our own. We’ve made swans, cats, dogs, even a huge dinosaur for a cottage on the Jurassic coastline.’
Mike and his young thatchers also preserve aspects of modern life: ‘We get asked to put time capsules in a thatch, which will sit tight for 50 years or more. It’s a real honour to know our craftsmanship is bringing past and present together under one roof.’

A thatcher’s tools haven’t changed for centuries

Quick-fire questions:
What book are you reading?
The Whalebone Theatre by Joanna Quinn. The author is the daughter of a customer I did a thatch for. You learn all sorts of things from the people you work for and meet some fascinating characters.

A-List Dinner Party Guests?
Our new King – you hear so much negative press about him. I’d love to meet the real person.
He could also leave his car and butler with me.
Jack Hargreaves – what an advocate for rural occupations.
Barry Sheen – for Rohan as he’s a motorbike fanatic!

dorsetmasterthatcher.com

Rohan Hennessy working on the Abbotsbury cottage rooftop

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