Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Life of a Chalkstream - The price of thatch

Nether Wallop Mill, Hampshire England. Tuesday April 14th 2015

There are lots of good things about living in a mill that was listed in the Domesday Book, but sometimes you do wonder. Around our way building cob garden walls became all the rage from the late 1700's.  The materials were at hand, it avoided the 1784 Brick Tax but most importantly the wall created a sort of cocoon effect, absorbing heat and protecting the garden from extremes of the weather for fruit and vegetable produce. Many of these walls still survive and today I am the proud owner of one such wall, which has been featured in books and TV shows. Bizarrely, though Nether Wallop Mill remains an unlisted building the garden wall that surrounds is listed; I think it may even be Grade 1. No, I don't really understand how or why that might be.

Cob basically means a wall made from any materials that the local artisans had to hand. Around here that is a mixture of soil, chalk, straw, horsehair and water that were kneaded in a cement-like slurry by allowing cattle trample it.  It was then layered onto a flint foundation and compacted by the workmen trampling it down by foot - this is cobbing. Once that layer of roughly a foot in thickness had dried another was applied and so on until the required height of the wall was reached. The wall was then plastered with a lime render and finished with whitewash.

Actually it was not actually finished at this point - cob walls are most vulnerable to rain. If the top is left unprotected the wall will collapse to a pile of dirt within the space of a few years as the water penetrates and the frost explodes it. So they must have thought, and this is where I curse my predecessors, what better than another locally available material than straw to create a protective thatch top? Oh, how I envy other cob walls owners with their fancy clay tile tops or even utilitarian half-round corrugated iron caps. For generations to come their wall will remain not only a thing of beauty but blissfully maintenance free. I'm sure they see my thatched wall and wish the same for their own. That I can promise, is not a good idea.

I have been here at Nether Wallop for seventeen years and last week we embarked on the third wall re-thatch. I did try to kid myself for a while that it was only the second, but no it is three. Once every eight years is a high price to pay to keep your wall. The trouble with a straw-thatch wall is that it is close to the ground and doesn't have the pitch of a whole roof. The hollows in the cob wall are perfect for mice homes who rummage in the straw above for the inevitable feast of corn. Within a month the newly thatched wall will start to take on a  frizzy look as the mice push and pull the straws out of the immaculate order, so every so often I'll have to tamp them all back in. It doesn't take long, but it is annoying however much I may or may not like the mice. And being such a short pitch the straw does not get same waterproofing effect as an entire roof might have, so inevitably the straw, aided by the mice rots quicker than the 10-15 years you might expect of a thatched house.

So as Geoff the thatcher goes about his work, I ponder what I might tell any prospective purchaser should I ever sell The Mill. Do I wax lyrical, extolling the heritage and beauty of one of Hampshire's most feted cob walls without mentioning the dreaded eight year cycle. Or do I come clean, putting a price on history?


The best fishing video so far this year

I subscribe to all sorts of blogs, news feeds and on-line media, but one of my best sources has to be the US magazine Field & Stream. 

Now I can't imagine any UK magazine sporting a cover like this and the articles sometimes make my brain swirl. The How to be a Total Sportsman (Skills Issue) told me how stalk without a sound, master the steeple cast, start a fire with binoculars and tie knots with one hand, plus 46 other ways to fish, hunt and camp like an expert, some I which I never knew existed. I could go on but am sure you are getting the general idea. But don't be put off by the F&S cover (!). Delve in to the Fly Talk section on the blog and there is all sorts of good stuff.

Last week it threw up the best fishing video I have seen for a very long time. Shot on the Gunnison River in Colorado it features the spring Stonefly hatch. The fishing guide is the incredibly laconic Jake Gott who finishes the film with a few words that says it all:  "I've been fishin' for 12 or 13 years now and I like catching fish." Give it a watch. It is 3 minutes of perfection. Click here ....

FLY FISHING FILM TOUR: Don't forget it comes to Stockbridge next Thursday (April 23) Tickets still available. Click here ....

Flyfisher's Chronicle

Neil Patterson is an award winning writer - Angling Writer of the Year, Columnist of the Year and Travel Writer of the Year are all accolades that have come his way. But for those of us who live our lives by the river it is his first book Chalkstream Chronicle that is incised on our brains.

We have been waiting a long time for a follow-up (since 1995 in fact ....) but finally it is here with Flyfisher's Chronicle that was published last week. I think you may well like it as Neil takes us on a tour of the world in search of wild trout, the slightly eccentric bunch that pursue them and the flies that fool them - the trout that is, though you do sometimes wonder.

Flyfisher's Chronicle is published by Constable at £30 and is available through Amazon and good bookshops.

Bug life

There are all sorts of good things going on in the world of rivers as the Environment Agency devolves some of the care into the hands of volunteer bodies.

In Hampshire, with more chalkstreams than we really deserve, there has been a great coming together of wildlife and river trusts under the Test & Itchen Catchment Partnership (TICP). Not the catchiest of titles I am sure you will agree but the work being done is wonderful. Next week is a chance for them to showcase that work, welcoming anyone who has an interest in the well being of our rivers.

Anglers Riverfly Initiative Practical advice on how to start riverfly monitoring on your water with a demonstration on the River Itchen.  

Date: April 22nd 6pm Venue: Colden Common, Winchester. Tickets/details: admin@wcsrt.org.uk

TCIP Annual Meeting and River Walk News and discussion on TICP projects. River Test walk with National Trist and Wild Trout Trust. 

Date: April 23rd 9.15am. Venue: Stockbridge Town Hall. Tickets/details: admin@wcsrt.org.uk

If you can't make it but would like to know more about the work of the Wessex Chalk Stream & Rivers Trust here is a link to the web site www.wcsrt.org.uk

Have a good week.


Best wishes,
Simon Signature 

Founder & Managing Director  

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