Dunster, Adrian & Mark Nicholls

Adrian and Mark were employed by Richard Wright, thatcher and farmer of Compton Dundon.  Richard Wright came from a family of thatchers, his father Harold and uncle ran the business before him. The Wright family were living in Compton Dundon village by 1851, and are recorded on the 1851 census.


Adrian Dunster was born in Compton Dundon. After leaving school he went to work on the farm for Richard Wright. He became involved with the thatching, after a few years and now thatches full time.


Mark Nicholls was born in Axbridge. After leaving school he chose to become a thatcher, and attended a thatching course in Northampton. Mark left the industry and now runs his own greengrocer's business delivering in a van around local villages.


This interview was undertaken during roof thatching at The Old Post Office, Butleigh.

A man thatching, early twentieth century. The tools, material and processes of thatching have changed very little for hundreds of years. A man thatching, early twentieth century. The tools, material and processes of thatching have changed very little for hundreds of years.
Sound File
Listen to Adrian Dunster and Mark Nicholls - 3.40MB Duration 7:25 min.

AH: What about the straw, is it a particular type of straw?


MN: Yes, I am not sure what this is actually.


AD: This is ‘huntsman’, it’s hollowed-stemmed.  Then you get ‘Quilla’, which is not hollow-stemmed, it’s all sappy.  Then there is ‘Morris Widgen’.   These are the three varieties.  Most people use huntsman, huntsman and quilla.


MN: It’s the older varieties you use.  The newer varieties are only grown for the corn, they are short.  We need the length to last longer.


AH: So what kind of length are these?


MN: Three and two and a half, to three foot long, which is quite a good length actually not bad at all.


AH: Who is growing this wheat for you?


AD: We grow some ourselves and then farmers round the area like Taunton, Curry Rivel, Stoke St. Gregory, round that area.  They grow about twenty-five, thirty acres, do it out and there is something for them to do in the winter when there’s not much to do on the farm, generally thrash it out [ ] bit more income for them.


AH: So how much do you grow yourselves?


AD: About thirty-five acres.  Of course we’ve got to do it between thatching.  I expect it’s about four five weeks’ work by the time you’ve cut it, stitch it and haul it, then you’ve got to leave it in the rick.


MN: And that’s all done in the old-fashioned way, with binder it’s all got to be thrashed out.  So it’s all kept very much to the olden days, a rural craft.


AH: Do you obviously cut it when it’s ripe in August or September?


AD: Yeah generally at the end of July. It’s all according how dry it is, because some die off when they’re in this stony ground and then you have to cut it then.


AH: It’s as early as that, is it?


AD: That’s right, because you don’t want it to do too far, it’s got to be between green and yellow.  It’s got to be like half-colour of each.  So the heads are just turning over so you can cut it.  You haven’t got to get it like combines today when it’s got to be really ripe, for them to cut it.  So got to be a little bit green.


AH: Will it ripen up once you’ve stitched it?


AD: That’s right, you let it stitch for about a fortnight and then you put it in ricks, and you want to leave it in a rick for about six weeks, for it to sweat out, and then gradually ripen up in the rick and then you can thrash it out then.  Because if you do it where it stood it will sweat and go all fousty.  So you’ve got to let it sweat out a bit!


AH: Because this is lovely and dry, isn’t it?


AD: That’s right. Well it’s better done about October time really, so it’s all ripened up then.  It’s better in the ricks because the wind can blow through all four ways.  In a barn it’s packed up against galvanised and it can’t sweat out too well.  So we like to put it in ricks.


AH: So you’ve got ricks down in Compton then?


AD: That’s right then.  You generally have about four and thrash out two about September time and we leave the others to about April, end of April, beginning of May.


AH: So in the space of a year then you’re using then about seventy acres?


AD: Yeah.


MN: I should think so.


AH: Apart from the time you cut and you thrash, are you thatching the rest of the year?


AD & MN: Yeah, all the year round.


MN: Even in between harvesting sometimes, the corn is still ripening, you are still carrying on thatching.  It’s the winter really that is the worst time really, it’s cold, bitter, and of course the reed has always got to be watered to work on the roof.  As you can imagine straw is very slippery, if you laid a wad of straw on the roof it would just slip off again.


AH: Oh so in fact you wet it, damp it down?


MN: Yes, we use a tub to dip them in before we use them.


AH: But you keep going in all weathers or are there certain times when you can’t keep going?


MN: Well, unless it’s really bad with a lot of rain we try to keep going.


AD: Wind is nearly as bad as rain for this job, because when you put it on it blows everywhere.


AH: You take a number of, what do you call them, bundles, what do you call them?


AD: Bundles.


AH: You take them a number up, don’t you, and I notice you divide the bundles?


AD: That’s right.


AH: You don’t use a whole bundle at once?


MN: Yes, we divide them into about five or six, called wads and, and put them on individually so that you haven’t got too much to handle at one time.


AH: And it is only just pegged in then, it’s not tied in any way?


MN: No, not with an old roof. On a new roof it’s completely different; we either call it ‘sewing’, which is with a long thing (metal) we call a needle, it is basically a needle. We put the needle in with a piece of string in it, we put it round the battens and rafters pull it round the other side and pull it tight round the other side, maybe a withy or willow, all long stick willow but what we use nowadays is steel, a piece of steel going through the roof and if you do it up tight into the roof, that will keep it on to the roof.  And there is another idea of crooking, which is like we, eight inch nails with a hook on the end.  You hit, would hit those into the rafters with the same steel or willow going through the roof and that will keep it on as well.


AH: What happens when you say well obviously when you are saying its got a crook...


MN: Yeah.


AH: Where does that come?


MN: Well if, if there was a piece of steel going through your hook like that, your hook would go on over the the steel or willow or whatever it would be and into the rafter underneath and thus making it all tight and in the end you couldn’t budge it with anything, it is so tight.

Copyright Information
Copyright. This recording was made by Ann Heeley in June 1988. Photograph ©SRLM. For access to full interview please contact the Somerset Heritage Centre.