I lived in a thatched cottage once before, many years ago. It was a rental cottage which we lived in temporarily when we were moving from Scotland down to England. (By the way – if you’ve never tried moving from Scotland to England, or vice versa, take my advice and DON’T unless (a) you absolutely have to and/or (b) have the constitution of a small ox. Although the two regions are joined at the hip (or just below the bust if you look at the island as a sort of wizened and warty old crone), they have different legal systems which – especially when it comes to buying and selling houses – don’t exactly co-exist amicably.)
Anyway, as I was saying, we lived in a rented cottage for about six months and it was an archetypal Ye Olde English thatched cottage, complete with tiny windows, thick walls, rising damp, low ceilings and tiny doors you had to almost bend yourself double to get through. Oh, and rats. it had rats. Lots of them. Rats love thatched roofs. Not that I remember the rats with horror: I rather like them and always have done.
I remember waking up one night and hearing a scrabbling sound inside the built-in closet to the left of my bed. When I switched on my torch and opened the door, there was rat sitting in one of my shoes. I was so enchanted that I didn’t tell anyone, but started leaving food for it – nuts, bits of cheese, half-eaten sandwiches …. It was only when the place was overrun with them and they’d despatched the white doves in the neighbours’ nest box, ransacked the bird food in the lean-to shed and shredded my father’s best dress jacket that I owned up. The Matriarch thought it was funny. My father didn’t, but he was out-voted.
These days, I’m as fond of rats as ever, but less sanguine about actually sharing my home with them. We live in perfect amity as long as they stay at the top of the garden or occasionally scuttle across the patio and keep out of the house. I therefore thought it was probably time, now that I was more or less settled in and had a little spare cash, to have the thatched roof looked at by A Proper Chap: mostly to make sure it was sound and still fireproof, but partly to see if there was any sign of occupation by Large Rodents.
Asking around for recommendations produced just one name – Chas Metcalfe. Chas was, I was assured, efficient, helpful and reasonably priced. The fact that he also seemed to be related to half of the village via their third-cousins-by-marriage may or may not have been a factor in the recommendations of course.
I rang him and got an answering machine with a terribly official-sounding message on it, conveying – without saying as much – that they were Thatchers to the Nobility. Trying not to sound terribly common, I started to leave a message, but before I’d got half way through my (previously rehearsed) spiel, someone picked the ‘phone up and said cheerily,
‘I’ve been expecting your call ….’
An hour later he arrived at my gate, not – as I was expecting – in a battered old van with a roof rack and miscellaneous mediaeval-looking instruments hanging out of the rear doors, but in a brand spanking new Mercedes-Benz Sprinter with ‘STRAWHANGERS’ emblazoned on the side and a softly purring engine under the bonnet which sounded as if it could do 80 up the autobahn without breaking into a sweat. Nor did the man who climbed out of it look as if he was a Master Thatcher. No tatty overalls. No battered tweeds or trousers held up with baling twine – just a pair of (very expensive looking) chinos and a sweatshirt emblazoned with the same artwork as the van. And he was thirty if he was a day.
I began to suspect – not for the first time – that ‘reasonably priced’ was a relative term.
Fifteen minutes later he had his ladders out and was on the roof, clambering around with what looked to me like an alarming lack of concern for his own well-being.
‘Do be careful,’ I bleated. ‘My first aid skills don’t extend to broken necks.’
‘No worries,’ he retorted from on high.’ I’ve been doing this since I was a kid. I’m from a long line of thatchers.’
‘And did they all die from old age?’
‘No.’ He tugged experimentally at one of those whatever-they’re-called things that pins the thatch down. ‘One of them stepped back to admire his handiwork. But if the fall hadn’t’ve killed him, his pickled liver would have.’
Ten minutes later, he was IN the roof, having squeezed himself through an access hatch scarcely big enough for a child. ‘People,’ he grunted as his feet vanished from sight, ‘were a lot smaller back in the day.’
I followed him up (well, my head and shoulders did … the rest of me stayed firmly in the 21st Century), and watched his head torch bobbing around for a moment, then going out.
‘Are you okay?’ I asked worriedly, peering into the pitch black void. ‘Do you want the light on? There is a light you know …’
I may, or may not, have heard a sigh.
‘I’m checking for daylight.’
‘Oh. Right. I’ll shut up then.’ I shut up for about 15 seconds. ‘See any?’
‘A little, around the chimney stack.’
‘Is that bad?’
‘Easily fixed. Probably just the flashing.’
I almost said, ‘Does easily mean cheaply?’ but managed to bite my tongue.
‘Any sign of rats?’
‘It’s hard to tell in the dark.’ He paused for half a beat to allow the barb to go in. ‘But I don’t smell any. Do you?’
I sniffed exaggeratedly, but all I could detect was dust. ‘Nope.’
‘You can turn the light on now.’
In the dim light of the 25 watt bulb he surveyed the inside of the roof visually. It looked like any old attic to me, but then, what do I know?
‘Yes. There’s a bit of damp around the chimney … but no other signs of a problem. and no rats. Only mice.’
Back down in the kitchen, mug of coffee in hand, he did some calculations on a chic little ‘Strawhangers’ notepad for the cost of lifting the thatch around the chimney, relaying the flashing and then rethatching. He showed me the result.
The next time someone tells me something or somebody is ‘reasonably priced’ I’ll make a point of asking, ‘As compared to WHAT, exactly?’