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What's it really like?
Grant Batchelor is a well-established Master thatched roofing specialist based in Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire, UK.
What made you decide or choose to get into this sort of career?
I always wanted to do something that was creative and involved working with my hands. I also couldn’t see myself working in an office. Initially I thought of carpentry; however, my father’s godson was a thatcher and was looking for an apprentice. Thatching, although I had never considered it before, ticked all the boxes of things that interested me.
Do you have a standard day or a standard type of 'exercise'?
A standard day would involve loading up straw from our barn first thing. Once on site we would thatch the roof in vertical courses of about 4 foot in width from bottom to top. It can be a very repetitive process for weeks on end sometimes, filling in the majority of the roof. I personally enjoy the repetitive process as it allows me to switch off and listen to the radio or audio book. The end of the day will involve clearing up, a process that is constantly happening and a very big part of the apprentice’s role.
What is the most common type of problem/call-out/enquiry to which you must attend?
Normally, it is for a complete re-thatch or a new ridge as needed. Second to that we do the odd patch on a roof to extend its life. However, this year I have quoted for many extensions and new builds to be thatched.
What do you like most about the job?
Creating a unique roof for someone that will be seen every day for 30 plus years. I also enjoy working outside and doing a physical job.
What do you like least about the job?
Really hot summer days. People think it must be lovely tinkering away on a roof in the sun. The reality is that it is incredibly dusty and you will be on the roof for 8 hours or more with the sun directly on your back. Sometimes it gets so hot that ladders and tools are hot to touch. Thatching is hard work and excessive heat does not help.
What are the key responsibilities?
An apprentice will be required to labour to the Thatcher, taking straw up the scaffolding ready to be used. This may be up to 30 times a day for one Thatcher. A key responsibility is keeping a tidy site and doing a lot of preparation work on the ground. A good apprentice will always keep the Thatchers with everything they need so they don’t need to get off the ladder themselves. Doing all this quickly and getting ahead means more time left for the apprentice to be on the roof thatching and learning for themselves.
What about academic requirements? Any formal demands, eg A Levels?
No academic requirements are needed; however, I will look for someone who will be a quick learner, physically fit, can take instruction and has a good attitude towards hard work.
What is the starting salary, and how does this increase over time with promotion?
It varies between thatching companies. However, a 1st year apprentice can expect to be on minimum wage or probably lower if they are below 18. This will gradually increase throughout the 4 year apprenticeship. When qualified, thatchers earn by the amount of roof they cover and on average can expect to take home about £500-£600 per week
What advice do you have for someone who is looking to get into this as a career?
Go to a thatcher and offer to work a week for free. Many people think it would be a great job but realise that all-weather, physical, dirty work is not the quaint idea of thatching they once had. By trying it out you will find out if it is for you or not and gain some experience. Competition for apprenticeships is fierce; I receive many queries every month for positions. An apprentice costs the thatcher money for the first 2 years so applicants need to show eagerness and realise that it is a long road of poor, menial tasks on poor money, with a rewarding job at the end!
What are the most important qualities an applicant must and should possess?
Quick learner, physical fitness, common sense, ability to take instruction well and a good team member.
Any closing questions, comments or additional advice?
To the best of my knowledge, the only thatching course for apprentices to achieve an NVQ is no longer running. It used to be held at Knuston Hall in Northamptonshire, but due to low numbers it is no longer viable. Apprenticeships are taken on between the thatcher and the applicant and the achievement of becoming a thatcher is based on experience rather than any awarding body.
Also, as with all trades, beware the cowboy. There are many thatchers who have limited training and do not adhere to the quality practices of others. An applicant should be wary of who is training them and stick to thatchers from the National Society of Master Thatchers. It is also known that thatchers take on “apprentices” as a means of cheap labour and never give back any decent training or time thatching. Although it is an industry still within a time gone by, applicants should try and have a clear training programme, and a progression timeline agreed between them and the thatcher.
A thatcher (or Thatched Roof Installer) is someone who installs and repairs thatched roofing for homes and businesses.
Thatching is a type of roof construction whereby dry vegetation (usually wheat reed or rushes) is used to form the shape of the roof and drain water away down the sides of the building. Thatched roofs are highly resistant to decay and require little maintenance when applied correctly, and it is the job of the thatcher to ensure this type of roof is installed and repaired correctly. England has more thatched roofs than any other European country (30,000 plus), and so has a healthy domestic market for thatched roof installation, maintenance and repair.
The work of the thatcher is often considered to be something of an arcane skill, as most modern roof constructions use slate or man-made materials. Thatched roof construction is popular with owners of period-style properties who wish to keep the original aesthetic, and it is the only choice of roof for buildings protected under the auspices of orders for preservation. The thatcher will deal with all aspects of roof repair or installation, from design and quotation to carrying out the work and advising on after-installation care.
Once a lengthily period of apprenticeship is completed, earnings can be decent in this industry, although in the case of self-employed business owners or partnerships, the work is subject to busy and quiet spells as with most other self-employed disciplines. Skilled thatchers with a good reputation and established client list can earn between £500 and £600 per week, based on the interview undertaken for this guide.
There are no formal qualifications required to be a thatcher. NVQs were previously available from Knuston Hall in Northamptonshire, although the course has now been withdrawn.
This job involves working at heights, so a common sense attitude to health and safety is required, as is knowledge of health and safety requirements, in cases where the thatcher is employing an assistant or protégé. It is essential the thatcher has suitable employer’s insurance and public liability insurance to protect against any losses or claims.
As all of the work takes place outside, this places the candidate in constant exposure to the elements. Thatchers will often be required to work outside in rainy or snowy conditions, and the work is particularly gruelling on hot days.
It is possible to enter the profession by offering to work as an unpaid assistant for a thatcher. This may lead to an offer of recruitment, whereby the junior will work on clean up duties whilst the Thatcher completes the installation. A considerate thatcher will try to pass on knowledge to the trainee during this partnership, although this does not always happen; there are some unscrupulous employers who use trainees as a means of procuring cheap labour. Candidates should exercise caution when seeking possible employment.
After completion of an apprenticeship, the candidate is theoretically equipped to begin their own sole trader operation. Progression can be limited in this field, as once the thatcher has acquired an excellent reputation and a full order book, there are not many places to go, except to continue working in the role.
Grant Batchelor, a highly skilled thatcher based in Chipping Norton, owns and operates a company indicative of a typical thatched roof installation firm, that is, a small, talented operation dedicated to its single purpose. Due to a limited market size, there are no “very large” installers.