Dafydd Driver, 19, is an apprentice thatcher with Pembrokeshire Thatch and Carpentry Service. He lives in Lampeter, Ceredigion in Wales.
What do you actually do?
I work on the reconstruction and restoration of thatched roofs on old listed buildings, thatched cottages, museums, and new builds. I also do traditional carpentry. A lot of our work is conservation – repairing and replacing roofs. In January and February we cut water reed, which you see growing in estuaries. It's traditionally used as thatch in coastal locations. We have to cut and clean the reed with a pitchfork to remove weeds, then braid it into neat bundles before we can start thatching. We also use wheat, once it's been through a threshing machine to remove grain. We try to use Welsh materials, or at least materials sourced in the UK.
What's your working schedule like?
I start at 8am and finish around 5.30pm to 6pm, with weekends off and normal holidays. We pack up earlier in winter, when it gets dark sooner. We do one project at a time – it takes about six weeks for a small roof, without too many features like windows to work around. We travel around a lot. If you don't want to be on the road all the time, you have to live in a region where there's a lot of thatch, like Dorset or Somerset.
What's the best thing about it?
It's really satisfying. You see the whole process from beginning to end – from getting the raw materials to finishing a thatched roof. Being outdoors all the time is magic, especially in the summer. I love being active all the time – you have to be quite fit as you're constantly carrying reed up ladders.
Are there any downsides?
It can be a bit windy and cold in the winter. You have no protection from the elements apart from the clothes you're wearing – and in the summer, it can be blisteringly hot. Water reed is quite a hard material, and you can get splinters easily – but I just grin and bear it.
What skills do you need to do the job well?
You need good hand-to-eye co-ordination, a head for heights, and the ability to think on your feet. You're constantly having to find solutions for things – every roof is different, and there's no textbook way to do it. You need to be well-organised when you're talking to customers and arranging scaffolds. There's a lot to learn in terms of technique, turning the reed and working around features, but you learn those skills on the job.
What advice would you give someone who wanted to become a thatcher?
Don't just jump into it. Find out if there are thatchers in your local area and contact them, then try to persuade them to take you on as an apprentice. You have to be self-motivated, as most master thatchers won't advertise for a trainee. There is one college in the UK, Hereford College of Technology, which offers an NVQ in thatching at Knuston Hall in Northampton, but you need some experience before you can study there. I get funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, which has a traditional building bursary scheme, so that's something to look into.
What's the salary and career path like?
You get the minimum wage as an apprentice. I'm on a bursary scheme, so my wages are higher than they would be otherwise. A starting salary after you've finished your apprenticeship would be roughly £15,000 - £20,000, depending on who you're working for. Eventually, you could start your own business.
For more information on training and careers as a thatcher, visit the National Society of Master Thatchers at www.nsmtltd.co.uk; or www.hereford-tech.ac.uk.
For information on the Traditional Building Skills Bursary and other Lottery funded projects, visit www.loveuk.org.Reuse content