Thursday, 16 August 2018

Purple, Green And Gold

A morning's wander in the woods and hills around the RSPB's headquarters near Sandy. It's an area that has always fascinated me, since its scenery is so different from the land that surrounds it, and the wide fields of Cambridgeshire that I call home. Here on a narrow outcrop of sandstone, known as the Greensand Ridge, bracken and heather thrive amongst the heaths and mixed woodland. Come and take a quiet stroll in this land of purple, green and gold.

Despite the presence of the offices of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds nearby the birds were not particularly plentiful or obvious. True enough, we did see a Buzzard on the Buzzard Trail and two sorts of Woodpecker on the Woodpecker Trail, though even the Nuthatches proved elusive on the Nuthatch Trail. On a brighter note we did see the nest of a pair of Hobbies, and Nightjars have been present for the first time in many years. But if you want to see Nightjars you have to come at night - the clue is in the name!

Take care.

Saturday, 4 August 2018

Beneath A Roof Of Straw

I've collected another batch of photos of cottages as I go about on my travels. These buildings always bring forth comments and questions about thatched roofs, some of which I'll try to answer here.

What is thatch? - Strictly speaking "thatch" is any roof made from plant materials, other than timber. Just about any plant can be used and Wikipedia helpfully points out that this may include leaves from palm trees. Not round here it won't (!), but it does show just how widespread the idea of weaving plant materials to form a roof is. In this part of England two materials predominate - wheat straw and reeds. Sedge is also sometimes used and in highland areas heather is employed where there is no handy supply of straw or reeds.

Wheat - this is the traditional material in my home area. It was plentiful as a by-product of growing wheat for bread-making, flour production and animal feed. I say "was" because although lots of wheat is still grown it's no use at all as a thatching material. In order to maximise production wheat has been developed which has very short straw, which lessens the amount of the crop that falls over in high winds or heavy rain. Such straw is useless as thatching straw. Also machinery smashes the straw up in the harvesting and threshing process. Straw for thatching has to be specially grown and harvested these days.

Reeds - reeds grow on badly-drained land and so were once widely available. However drainage of the Fens and many valley bottoms have made reedbeds less common. Parts of the Norfolk Broads do still produce good quality thatching reed, though nowadays a lot of reed is imported, mainly from Eastern Europe. Why? Well, the reason is down to those pesky modern grain farmers again. In order to get the highest possible yield of wheat they apply nitrate fertiliser to the fields. This then washes off the land and into the water courses and reed beds. Here it helps the reeds to grow more quickly but this unfortunately makes them more brittle and less suitable for use by thatchers.

How is it done? - This is not the place, and I'm certainly not the person, to give instructions on how to make a watertight roof out of such apparently unpromising materials. The basic idea is to lay the thatch in such a way that the water runs off before it soaks too far into the roof. To this end roofs have a fairly steep pitch.

When re-thatching occurs the old thatch is removed to reveal a lattice of rafters and laths to which the straw or reed is attached. Starting at the bottom the thatch is laid in bunches, tied in, and then fixed with hazel spars (sometimes called "sways"). The thatch is built up to the required thickness by adding more bunches. The top surface then has to be laid so that each piece is overlapped by the one above to create a smooth surface so that each piece of straw or reed has only its lower end showing - it's much the same principle as an animals fur or a birds feathers; the very ends get wet but inside all is dry and snug.

An extra layer is added along the ridge, where the roof is subject to most battering from the elements. This ridge is usually renewed more regularly than the rest of the roof.

History - No one really knows how long thatch has been used as a roofing material though it's generally believed to go back at least to the Bronze Age. In the medieval period it was widely used for even large and important buildings such as churches, manor houses and even castles. There are still a few thatched churches around if you care to search them out.

With such a long history you would expect that "master thatchers" would have been organised into a craft guild long ago, but it was not so. It seems that this was because most of the work was done by agricultural workers who learned their trade from thatching straw- and hay-stacks and farm buildings, then naturally moved on to thatching houses when work on the land was slack.

There is now an organisation of master-thatchers but it was formed less than a hundred years ago. Most thatching firms are small with just one or two men and work within their local area. I did try to find out if there are any women employed in the job, but putting "lady thatcher" into your search engine only turns up references to a certain British Prime Minister!

Other roofing materials - the main drawback of thatch was its flammability and as long ago as the thirteenth century laws were passed banning it in London for safety reasons. Other towns followed suit over the succeeding centuries, usually when areas were re-built following fires. Slate and tiles became more frequent and in some areas became the norm, even in rural locations.

Putting a new roof on a building is not always as simple as it sounds though. Thatch is a relatively light material and requires only a light wooden framework to support it.. This in turn can be held up by relatively weak walls. A friend who worked in the conservation of old buildings was once called in to replace the tiled roof on a local cottage. This cottage was much admired for its picturesque curvy roof and over-hanging gable-ends. 

As he explained it to me in the pub that night, "the whole thing is held up with sticks that I wouldn't trust to support the runner-beans in my garden!". The tiles had obviously just been put on top of the framework previously used to hold the thatch, with no thought to the extra weight it would have to bear. The roof had then sagged and bent under the weight, which may have looked quaint but was also on the point of total collapse.

Pros - Thatched roofs would not have survived as well as they have done without having some advantages
  • They provide excellent insulation which makes them warm in winter and cool in summer.
  • Unlike some materials they are silent when it rains.
  • As described above it makes a lightweight roof and many old buildings would not be able to support any other sort of roof without being largely rebuilt.
  • They look nice. Strange as it may seem this is probably the most important factor which makes owners put up with the "cons" which we'll come on to next. 

  • They are very expensive to maintain for a number of reasons. On average a thatched roof will need replacing every 30 years or so, but will also need regular inspection and some maintenance during that time. Good quality reed and straw are less plentiful than they once were, as we've already seen, and less plentiful means more expensive! It's also labour intensive work.
  • Many other life-forms may make their home in your thatch! Birds are the most obvious interlopers who may come to stay. They can cause a lot of physical damage to the roof if they decide to build their nests. But mice and insects can also move in as can various moulds and fungi. Wire mesh can keep the birds out, as long as it's well maintained.
  • It can catch fire. Nowadays a fire-retardant layer can be put beneath the thatch, and the thatch itself can be treated with chemical sprays which help protect it from fire. It's claimed that today it's no more likely to catch fire than other forms of roofing - but the insurance companies don't always agree!

What about the future? - The first impression is that old buildings were thatched, then at sometime in the last couple of centuries better roofing materials were developed and that's what's been used since, apart from renewing thatch on buildings from an earlier age. But first impressions in this case are mostly wrong.

For centuries thatch, tiles and slates were all used, depending on what was available locally. In towns as we've seen thatch was little used because of the risk of fire. In areas where there were slate quarries they would use slates on roofs of even the most modest of buildings. Similarly tiles would be used if they were made locally. But that left huge swathes of the countryside where thatch predominated.

What changed a couple of hundred years ago was a revolution in transport with canals, and later railways, being constructed which allowed slate and tile to be transported all over the country.

But thatch was still used sometimes and throughout England you can find estate villages which were built in the traditional style just because the lord of the manor thought it would be nice to have a quaint village on his land. I used to drink in a pub in my home village which had a pub with a thatched roof - it was built as recently as 1936.

Even today modern developers occasionally build houses with thatched roofs in order to get permission to build in conservation areas. And there are all those old cottages which still need their thatch replacing every few decades.

Take care.

Tuesday, 24 July 2018

First Thing

"First thing"...that's what they called it down on the farm. Dawn, daybreak, sunrise or, if you like "first thing". That very precise time of day when, as it was once explained to me, "You goes down the yard and falls over sumthink in the dark and, by the time you gets up, you can see what it was!"

So that's what I was thinking about as I got my bike out of the shed at half-past-four this morning (!) and cycled off down the village street. The weather here has been so unusually warm recently that I reasoned that early morning was the only cool time of day to get some exercise.

The breeze was deliciously chilly just like it used to be when cycling to the farm on a summer's morning and I managed to arrive near the crest of Chapel Hill just in time for sunrise.

Chapel Hill would scarcely get a mention on the maps of most parts of the world, but here in the flat lands of Cambridgeshire it's a famous and fearsome incline that opens up views for miles around.

I took dozens of photos - enough to make up for all the other mornings when I stayed in bed - before walking back down the field edge to where my bicycle leaned against the gate.

The light from the early morning sun was lending a rosy glow to the apples.

At the bottom of the hill there stands an old cottage where every year there's a show of pelargoniums in old terracotta pots on this window ledge.  I've meant to photograph them before but never have. It looks like I might be just in time too as there's a SOLD notice on the house. Time moves on.

The sky was now putting on a more subtle show of greys and pastel colours. The strange object on the horizon is part of the Radio Astronomy Observatory at Lord's Bridge where they look into deep space for I know not what. At roughly the same distance from the other side of the picture you might be able to make out the tower of the University Library. And further to the right, if you've got very sharp eyes, are the spires of King's College Chapel.

A little later the sun began to shine over the band of cloud and send its rays heavenward.

From the sublime to the agricultural as I'd found a rather battered farmyard door. No need to replace that for a year or two!

And here's today's quaint thatched cottage standing by the roadside in the early morning light.

On the opposite side of the lane the sunshine was illuminating the wild oats and grasses at the side of a field.

I then followed the farm track back through the recently harvested fields. The straw has been baled into the huge square bales that they favour nowadays. Pretty soon there won't be many of us left who know how to build a straw stack out of the old small bales. That lane doesn't look as though it rises much at all but.... soon reach a point where you can gaze back over the way you've come with something approaching smug satisfaction.

"That were lovely first thing. Best bit o' the day - and most people missed it!"

Take care.

Thursday, 19 July 2018

Back To The Garden

"We've got to get ourselves back to the garden" as Joni Mitchell recommended so many years ago. But it's not Woodstock that we're going back to, but the Cambridge Botanic Garden where a rather different music event was taking place yesterday evening. TG Collective were performing gypsy-jazz-and-beyond as part of a programme of events called Sounds Green which takes place in the garden throughout July.

Many families bring picnics and start to gather on the lawns as much as two hours before the music begins. There were dancing girls in front of the stage too - but they were about six years old!

The event concluded a rather musical day for me as beforehand I'd been wandering the streets of the city centre listening to the buskers. On this fine July afternoon that included a Celtic folk trio, a man playing musical saw, African drummers and probably the world's only glove-puppet ukulele player (I kid you not!). And at lunchtime I'd been to a recital of classical flute and piano music in Sidney Sussex Chapel. That's Cambridge for you.

Take care.

Monday, 16 July 2018

A Gentle Turn Of The Pedals

Another warm day in this glorious summer, they say it's the best since 1976 and I'm not about to contradict. Too warm to enjoy a lengthy walk but ideal for a short bike ride, as long as you can go gently enough so as not to overheat but just fast enough to produce a cooling breeze.

I tootled off through the village to see what sights the Cambridgeshire landscape might serve up on this fine July morning. I turned down Malton Lane, not one of England's major highways and rather bumpy in a car, but pleasant enough for a bike ride.

Almost everyone who passes this way (and there aren't very many of them, it's true) exclaims that they would like to live in Malton Farmhouse. It might prove to be a bit isolated for some tastes as the village of Malton disappeared as long ago as 1428, though you could apparently still see the remains of its church until the 1930s.

Most of the land around here is in full agricultural production though there are occasional scruffy bits where wildflowers and weeds flourish.

Malton Lane leads at length to the village of Orwell, where a road leading off to the right will take you to Barrington.

Leaving the village I came across what appeared to be The Lone Ranger's horse (!) though I think the mask is just to prevent flies getting in the eyes. As you can see in the background, harvest here is well underway with some straw already baled up.

When out on my bike, hunting for photos, I always pull off into any field gates that are open. Often you get better views than when the hedgerows are in the way. Besides photos I always collect a lot of sharp grass seeds in my socks.

I don't know if it's because harvest is earlier than usual, or because it's been uncharacteristically dry, but so far we haven't been bothered by what we know as "thunderflies". These tiny, almost invisible, little beings do not bite but are equipped with what must be microscopic claws with which the crawl about on your skin and in your hair. Their presence is one of the more irritating aspects of harvest time. "What wuz the Good Lord thinkin' about when he made them little buggers?" would be a question asked every summer on the farm.

Into Barrington where the huge village green is a lot less green than usual, but the bench, with it's view of the old farmhouse and the cricket pavilion, looks particularly inviting.

While sitting supping on my water bottle the local bus went past. The service is run by Whippet Coaches, which were named long ago with a humorous nod to the USA's more famous Greyhound Buses. I see that they now have some smaller vehicles appropriately called "Puppies".

I promised myself I wouldn't photograph any picturesque, thatched cottages on this visit to Barrington - once again I failed miserably!

At Barrington church I turned right towards Foxton.

The skies were beginning to look interesting as I cycled onward. I'd been hoping to see some harvest work taking place but it was not to be. Modern machinery is into and out of the field so quickly that you're lucky if you see it.

Near Foxton the main railway from Cambridge to London crosses what used to be the main road (A10) to the capital. The "signal box" is actually a level-crossing box from which the gates used to be opened and closed, though now everything is automated. The crossing's recently had a number of safety features added in an attempt to prevent accidents. There's also talk of a bridge being built to carry the road over the line.

I biked alongside the A10, which is still a busy road, using the cycle-way. This used to be a rather rough, bumpy track but is now as smooth as the road itself. And still you see occasional idiots who'd rather ride in amongst the traffic! 

I turned off into Shepreth where there's another cottage that everyone says they'd like to live in; though in this case they haven't realised that every car that goes past at night shines its lights straight into the windows.

There are still a few fields of wheat waiting to be harvested. And back in Meldreth I saw this window surrounded by flowers. Now I'd like to live there...

and, as luck would have it, I do. That's my kitchen window and inside the fridge there's a bottle of apple juice and a nice salad awaiting my return.

Take care.