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The Berkshire village of Inkpen where, on a sunny autumn afternoon, two English craftsmen are rethatching an ancient barn.

There have been straw roofs in England ever since our ancestors came out of the caves. But thatching is no longer just a relic of ?ye olde world? which is best left to Christmas cards and biscuit box lids. It is back in fashion.

Thatching a roof is an age-old tradition. Not only is it environmentally friendly but also very much back in vogue

James McCormack, the Master Thatcher whose firm is working on the Inkpen roof, says that half of his work is on brand-new buildings. And the contemporary craze is more than an affectation.

Thatching ought to play an increasing part in our environmentally friendly future. The only energy that is employed to reroof the barn at Inkpen is provided by the muscle power of James McCormack and his colleague Kevin Herbert. And the only materials they use are straw and wood.

Why roof-thatching is back in vogue                        Why roof-thatching is back in vogue

What is more, in a world disturbed by too much noise and bustle, thatching has the supreme advantage of being a silent craft. It can go on, literally over your head, without you noticing.

The silence is one of the reasons that we still think of thatching as part of a world which turned more slowly than it does today.

Yet James McCormack and Kevin Herbert are just two of the 1,200 or so people who work each week on thatched roofs old and new - each of them displaying qualities which it is important for England to foster and encourage.

Thatching is hard, demanding work. Last year, McCormack took on an apprentice who, after a month or two, ?walked off the job because he just could not take it.

Poet and novelist Thomas Hardy's birthplace in Dorset is a typical traditional thatched home

Fortunately, there are still young men who can. McCormick and Herbert sweat and strain, but clearly love every minute of their work. They describe its intricacies with unashamed enthusiasm and obvious pride.

Both men learned their trade on the job. James McCormack - in his mid-30s - was ?undecided whether to stay on at school into the sixth form or start work - probably in IT?. So his mother suggested thatching.

He cannot even guess what put the thought into her head and admits that, at first, it ?seemed a daft idea?. But he ?agreed to give it a go?.

Now, having qualified for Master?s status, he owns his own company, Country Thatching of Wokingham. Kevin Herbert attributes his entry into the trade as ?simply the result of wanting a job in rural crafts?.

Now, they are so committed to their craft that, even over a mug of tea, they sing thatching?s praises. It provides perfect insulation. Cool in summer and warm in winter, the temperature of rooms below the straw never varies by more than one degree.

And as well as being completely waterproof, thatch frees householders from all worries about broken tiles and missing slates. A wheat and rye straw roof lasts for 30 years, long straw five or ten years less. But Norfolk reed - the name denotes type, not place of origin - is often still stable and impervious after a full century. Thatching, they insist, makes practical sense.

Like so many difficult tasks, thatching looks easy to the uninitiated. Bundles of straw or reed are fastened, in horizontal lines, to the roof beams. Then more bundles are pegged to them - side by side in vertical rows - with ?spans?, hazel twigs which have been twisted and then bent double.

?They work,? says Herbert, ?like paper clips. Experienced thatchers, with hardened palms, drive the spans home with the flat of their hands. Novices need mallets. They are one of the few tools that thatchers ever employ.

Another is the ?leggatt? - it looks like a cross between a solid steel tennis racket and a frying pan - which is used to slap the bottom of each vertical bundle of straw until the stalks all, more or less, end at the same point.

The bottom of the thatch, where the roof ends, used to be cut into a straight line with a shearing hook. McCormack and Herbert use garden shears - manual not powered. They are far too practical to imitate old ways for imitation?s sake. But sometimes the old ways work best.

Thatching is not a trade for the feeble or frail. McCormack doubts if many thatchers are still working on their 50th birthday. Most of the job is done from ladders - perched precariously on roofs - with the thatchers reaching perilously out to left and right as they position the bundles of straw and drive the spans home.

By tradition, they work on through wind and rain. There are 300 square feet of roof on the barn at Inkpen, and to renew the thatch, 15 tons of straw had to be carried up the ladders. A new roof would have needed more than twice as much.

Thatchers earn their money the hard way. They have been working hard in England since long before Sir Robert de Ingpen founded Saint Michael'?s Church in Inkpen 800 years ago. Now, just beyond the wall that marks the boundary of the consecrated ground, they are our history come to life in a thriving modern industry.

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