Modern approach to an ancient craft: David Bowen finds that some rivals are raising the roof over the activities of the world's largest thatching company

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The Independent Online
TURGIS COURT FARM, just by Wellington College in Berkshire, is an unusual place. Its 350 acres grow combed wheat reed and long straw. Both wheats are low in yield and useless for anything except one thing - thatching.

Two heavily modified combine harvesters, a thatched farm office, and a mass of bundled (not bailed) corn are further clues that Turgis Court Farm is dedicated wholly to the one industry.

The farm belongs to Bob West, whose company, Thatching Advisory Services, is the largest of its type in the world, turning over pounds 4m a year. As well as growing specialist wheats TAS imports materials, insures thatched houses, surveys them, builds sets for film work, sells ready-thatched huts, runs a research and development department for fire retardants and, most important, runs a thatching franchise operation that covers most of the country.

It is very different from the vast bulk of thatching firms, which are typically two- or three-man bands. Some still have their own patch, repairing and rethatching the same houses that their fathers and grandfathers cared for.

Not surprisingly, they are not in general pleased by the growth of such a big organisation as TAS. Nor is the Rural Development Commission, the Government body that runs training schemes for thatchers. Indeed, the whole thatching industry - which should by its nature be bucolic and tranquil - is in a state of tension. 'TAS is fighting a running battle with the traditional thatcher,' says one source.

It is easy to see both sides of the argument. To an extent thatching has simply undergone a process that has affected almost every other fragmented industry. Its popularity has waxed and waned through the ages.

The balance between cost and fire risk used to be the determinant. This century it has been mainly a matter of fashion, though certain areas - particularly the South-west and East Anglia - have always had the greatest concentration of thatch.

In the Thirties thousands of new houses were thatched in London's commuter belt, and during the Eighties thatch again became fashionable. As a result the thatching industry has revived.

In the Fifties there were 400 thatchers with an average age of 57. Now there are 800, aged 40 on average, and until the present recession most were making a very comfortable living.

Mr West set up before the latest boom, starting TAS in 1974 to offer first advice and then services to owners or prospective owners of thatched houses. Surveyors were no longer being trained in the peculiarities of thatch, and insurers were raising premiums as a result.

Mr West moved into surveying and insuring and then tackled other problems as they arose. Most serious was early degradation, linked to artificial fertilisers, which became evident in the Seventies. TAS's response was to establish its own farm.

The franchise operation was to Mr West a logical extension of the service. He now has 35 franchisees, each of whom employs up to 10 men. The franchisees are trained on a six-month course, and if they make the grade are given a region and then fed with business by TAS. They pay the company about pounds 10,000 for the course as well as a percentage of turnover.

The franchisees come from all sorts of backgrounds. John Butler, who was found thatching a First World War house deep in the stockbroker belt of Surrey, was a Safeway assistant manager in Kent until 1990.

A selection of weird and wonderful tools and screws is suspended from his belt, and he says he will take six weeks to finish this new thatch. The 33-year-old has 'absolutely no regrets' about swapping jobs, though he does say the recession is making life tough.

Other TAS thatchers include a former geologist, an ex-naval commander and a reformed biker.

But the entry of the TAS-trained thatchers has caused upset among traditional thatchers and also in the RDC, which runs its own training schemes.

TAS has been criticised for giving insufficient training and for using non-traditional materials - specifically water reed in areas where wheat is traditional. 'He's taken a craft and tried to turn it into a business,' says one thatcher.

Alastair West, Bob's nephew, believes that the hostility has deeper roots. 'Thatchers work on their own, so they tend to build up bogey men,' he says. 'Traditional thatchers have their own villages, so if we thatch one house there they get very irate.'

The recession has added to the discord as the increased number of thatchers fight for a decreasing volume of business. New building, which two years ago accounted for 50 per cent of TAS's business, has virtually stopped in Britain.

TAS, which has high overheads, has been particularly affected, while its franchisees have found it difficult to match smaller outfits' quotes. But, even with a low quote, thatching is a little more expensive than real slate.

TAS has, however, been able to seek work outside Britain and recently won pounds 1m worth of orders in the Far East and the US.

Although other regions have a thatching tradition - Normandy, Brittany and parts of Germany have many thatched houses - British thatchers have an advantage because thatches here tend to be most intricate. German thatchers do not, for example, know how to thatch a ridge beause their ridges are tiled.

TAS says that it is the only company that can do really big jobs because it can assemble up to 50 craftsmen to work on one site.

Despite all the tensions and the problems caused by the recession, most people believe the trend towards thatch will revive when times get better.

The Independent's architectural editor recently sketched out his view of the house of 2002. It was full of computers and electronic wizardry - but was topped off with a traditional thatched roof.

(Photograph omitted)