THE slow bus from Linton to Cambridge winds its way each morning through the little village of Abington. One of the pleasures of my commute in the past couple of weeks has been the chance to watch two thatchers at work, as we trundled past a cottage whose roof they were renewing.
Over that fortnight, I witnessed a miracle of gradual transformation: the dull grey of the old thatch gave way to golden reed, all freshly dressed and resplendent in the sun, until the whole was a new-made glory, shining like Heorot, the golden-roofed mead-hall of Hrothgar, which the Beowulf poet called
Foremost of halls under heaven;
Its radiance shone over many lands.
Of course, this was no Saxon mead-hall but a little country cottage, and yet in the art of thatching there was continuity.
The thatchers themselves were fascinating. There was an older man, clearly the master craftsman and in charge: tall, wiry, tanned with sun and wind. He had a kind, wise face and longish silver hair, which I guessed must once have been as golden as the reeds he so skilfully pinned into place. The other was clearly his apprentice: a younger man with hair still bright as straw — perhaps, I wondered, his son. Here, too, in the passing of the craft to a new generation, was a continuity to be cherished.
From my window in the bus I could see the older man instructing his apprentice, but couldn’t hear their conversation. I guessed though, that some of those lovely old words, peculiar to thatching, were hanging for a moment in the Abington air, as he named their unique tools: the “twisle”, and the “spragger”, and showed his apprentice how to lift the “nitch” and set the “fleaking” right.
Relishing what Hopkins calls “áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim”, might have led me into mere nostalgia for a bygone age; but that is not what thatching is for. Thatching is not about looking back: it’s about making things new again: restoring the grey into gold, making things fast, watertight, and workable.
As I watched that grey-haired man transform and renew the roof on which he worked, I remembered, with sudden poignancy, those lovely lines of George Peele’s:
His golden locks Time hath to silver turn’d
O Time too swift, O swiftness never ceasing. . .
I thought how, in this world, the old cottage with its new thatch had outlasted many human lives, and would outlive the man who was renewing it now. But then Edmund Waller’s last poem, “Old Age”, came to my mind unbidden:
The soul’s dark cottage, battered and decayed
Lets in new light through chinks that time hath made. . .
As the bus moved on, I looked back for one last glimpse of the thatchers, and Waller’s last lines echoed in my mind:
Leaving the old, both worlds at once they view,
That stand upon the threshold of the new.