The centuries-old rural skills that shaped our villages and towns are set to be given a boost with the go-ahead for a rural skills centre at Starston near Harleston.
The Rural Land Skills and Thatching Training Centre will be based at Laurels Farm, Skinners Lane, and will be the first centre of its kind in the country. The brainchild of master thatcher Stephen Letch, it will be of national significance in helping preserve or re-introduce traditional building techniques, either for conservation purposes or use in innovative new build, low-carbon construction projects.
Planning permission has been granted and, once constructed, the centre will run hands-on courses in long straw and water reed thatching, including conservation thatching. It will also teach how to grow thatching straw and other thatching materials, clay lump and wattle & daub and cob construction, lime plastering and pargetting, flint knapping, coppicing, and other countryside skills. Mr Letch will teach some courses himself, with specialists brought in to cover other areas.
The centrepiece of the project will be a stunning roundhouse, slightly sunken into the ground, with clay lump walls up to two feet thick and a roof constructed with pine from Thetford Forest and thatched with long straw designed to resemble a haystack.
“It will all be local materials from sustainable sources,” Mr Letch said.
He has even put out an appeal to ask for donations of clay lump from old buildings that may be falling down. The material can be revitalised and used in the formation of the new earthen bricks which will form the walls of the new building.
The roundhouse will provide accommodation for up to eight people attending residential courses at the centre, while in the upper floor roof area there will be a large circular meeting space for specialist day conferences such as for planning or conservation officers, thatchers, architects and specifiers.
Workshops will go on in the adjacent, already existing barn and there are also plans for research and development into the production of thatching materials on the adjacent land, as well in collaboration with the John Innes Centre and Easton College.
The project has received support from English Heritage, the John Innes Centre, RIBA East, construction company Morgan Sindall and the East Anglia Earth Buildings Group.
Mr Letch, a prominent member of the East Anglia Master Thatchers Association, said a key role of the centre’s training purpose would be to “help drive up standards” in the industry.
“Our association publishes thatching specifications and our members have to guarantee their work to those specifications otherwise they are out. But not all thatching associations do that and it can lead to poor workmanship,” he said.
“The centre will help improve standards and provide the building blocks to convert these traditional skills into modern methods of construction.”
Training as a thatcher takes three to six years and can only be done by apprenticeship with a working thatcher, but there is no co-ordinated programme or examination. Mr Letch said there was also a chronic shortage of specialist apprenticeships and training courses for other rural land, constuction and conservation skills. Hence the centre will play a vital role as a hub to bring providers together and support thatchers who take on trainees.
Mr Letch trained in the 1970s when “thatching was on it knees”. He said: “A lot of thatches had been stripped, but about the time I started people were coming round to thinking of re-instating them.”
Today, there are 50-60,000 thatched properties in the UK. Around 24,000 of them are listed as of historic importance, of which East Anglian boasts a high proportion. As well as the conservation market, there are also new build projects and the commercial sector is now beginning to look at incorporating more traditional materials.
Together with other local thatchers, Mr Letch is shortly to start work on The Enterprise Centre, being built by Morgan Sindall on the Norwich Research Park at the UEA, the UK’s leading university in sustainable building research and development. Due to open in January 2015, the £8 million trail-blazing building is set to be the UK’s greenest commercial building with innovative use of a timber frame fitted with prefabricated straw and reed cladding panels. The construction of the long straw wall panels is an area Mr Letch can see traditional thatching expanding into as a new industry.
Meanwhile, in between work projects, he hopes to start construction of the roundhouse at Laurel Farm next Spring, with courses being up and running for 2015.
For more information on thatching, see www.eamta.co.uk