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Renovating Wellow Wood
Renovating Wellow Wood
By Dom In Thatch News Posted 2nd July 2015 0 Comments

A little bit of thatched cottage heaven
Our MD Richard Playle is the lucky owner of a stunning thatched cottage. When he and his family first took possession it was on its last legs, drooping and sad, tatty and unloved. Here’s how Richard brought Wellow Wood cottage back to life, giving it just enough of a facelift to bring it back to glory while retaining its charming bucolic personality.

Renovating Wellow Wood

Renovating a thatched cottage – A labour of love

Owners or potential buyers of period property might find our experiences of some interest – the biggest problem is finding craftsmen used to working in traditional building materials, and when you find them, waiting for them to start work! This is one of the reasons why we have undertaken so much of the building work ourselves. Here’s how we did it.

First, apologies for the quality of the photos. They’re not the best – we were far too busy working on the house – but they give you a good enough idea of the place and our progress.

Renovating Wellow WoodThis is Wellow Wood as she was, a little gem with thatch resembling a bad case of ringworm and an elaborate porch, supported on old telegraph poles, looking like the entrance to a rustic Caesars Palace casino. This illusion was ruined, however, as the front door had been replaced by a wall of breeze blocks.

Much of the timber framing to the left hand of the old front entrance had been removed in the 1950s to accommodate a Dickensian style bay window complete with window roundels.

Finding good craftsmen

Finding people with the right expertise is a chore in itself – waiting for them to turn up would give Godot a run for his money. I had known the late master thatcher Steve Cleeve for more years than I care to remember – in my opinion he was one of the best longstraw thatchers around. Steve recommended Bob Hall as a first class oak specialist – so at least we managed to get off to a good start!

Renovating Wellow WoodDecay, damp and dismantling

The removal of the bay window exposed substantial decay in the surrounding timberwork necessitating the dismantling of virtually the whole of the right hand elevation.

Renovating Wellow WoodA neat detail – the shakes in the new timber match those in the old! Bob Hall is somewhat of a perfectionist, The oak used came from Bursledon Brickyard in Southampton from trees felled by the 1987 hurricane.

Renovating Wellow WoodThe original infill is a mixture of clay from the garden, lime, chopped straw and bullock hair on a hazel wattle. At some time (probably in the late 1950s) many of the panels were “repaired” using a hard, Portland cement mix. This has accelerated decay and created pockets of damp within the structure.

Renovating Wellow WoodThe inbuilt flexibility of a timber frame does not suit hard finishes which tend to crack and break away. Although the workman thought that by using Portland cement he was sealing the surface and keeping water out, the long term result has been the complete opposite.

Renovating Wellow WoodDoing good with wood…
The framing mortice and tenon secured with an auger prior to the insertion of the oak peg. Holes are bored slightly off centre so that driving the peg home tightens the joint.

Renovating Wellow WoodThe author pretending he has actually contributed something to the repair other than just paying for it.

Renovating Wellow WoodA picture of sartorial elegance – abandoning insurance for the pleasures of bricklaying. The cement is a lime putty and graded sand mix known as “coarse stuff”; to which a setting agent (called a pozollanic) has been added. Lime gives a fillet softer than the brick face making it less likely for the brickwork to be worn away by the elements rather than the cement.

Renovating Wellow WoodThe thatched roof itself

By the time the thatcher arrived, the roof, already giving a passable impression of a compost heap, had sprung several leaks in possibly the wettest winter on record. Upstairs rooms were dotted with buckets of oak-rich water the colour of strong tea. The fetching ultramarine tarpaulin became a neighbourhood landmark for many a month.

Renovating Wellow WoodThe cottage had the remnants of long straw thatch with a butt ridge. Although this material is not as robust as reed or combed wheat, in my opinion the shape of the roof and the design of the cottage would be complimented by long straw with a flush ridge. Hampshire Council agreed wholeheartedly and supplied a grant – or rather a modest contribution, one of the last available.

Renovating Wellow WoodUnlike reed and combed wheat, which are dressed on the roof with a Leggett so that only the ends of the material are visible, long straw shows more stalk and needs to be clipped to reduce the appearance of a bad hair day.

Renovating Wellow WoodThe end of an era – the blue tarpaulin lays abandoned on the straw heap and buckets are emptied for the last time

Renovating Wellow WoodThe late Steve Cleeve applying the detailing to the rim of the thatch ready for the wire cover. Long straw and combed wheat are most frequently wired to prevent bird and vermin damage.

Renovating Wellow WoodSteve Cleeves’ pheasant “trademark” sneaked onto the roof when I was not looking as I am not a fan of this sort of thing (bah, humbug!) There is a house seen somewhere on my travels that has a thatched kangaroo – enough said!

Renovating Wellow WoodFront door shenanigans
As we intended to open up the old front door, the necessity of a replacement porch presented itself. I did not think the cottage, fairly simple in design, needed anything elaborate so Bob Hall drew a rough sketch on a scrap of paper and we went for that. Bob suggested a slate roof but in my wisdom, and without any experience in their application, I opted for cleft oak. In due time what can only be described as three bundles of firewood arrived from the suppliers with an invoice for £300!

Renovating Wellow WoodThe front door we obtained from Romsey Joinery – framed and braced random oak boards. I made the mistake of storing this on its side in the garage. When we came to fit it, it had bowed by a good ½” side to side. Like true gentlemen, the suppliers dismantled it, corrected the bow, reassembled and returned it free of charge.

Renovating Wellow WoodLimewashing a thatched cottage
I put this off for a long time as I thought it was going to be difficult. The thing to remember with lime is that it does not set or dry like modern paints. Lime needs to calcify (basically reform into chalk). Thin, milky coats applied in the right conditions and with adequate time to dry between coats gives a superb finish that absorbs sunlight and literally glows with a depth unobtainable with modern finishes. Impatience usually results in a wall of fugitive, dusty, chalk.

Wellow Wood, finally in fine fettle

Renovating Wellow WoodAnd here she is in her full splendour, a great deal of backbreaking but satisfying work later. With our help Wellow Wood cottage will stand firm for another few hundred years, long after we’re dead and gone. It was a labour of love we were delighted to embark upon, and one we’d recommend to anyone who appreciates historic thatched properties.

Total cost for the roof £10,000 (less council grant £2,000) timber framing repairs c. £3,500.

Things we would not do again

Would we do anything differently, knowing what we know now? Oh, yes!

  • We don’t recommend using a drying agent when using lime cement for bricklaying – it’s difficult to judge quantity and unless it’s a load bearing wall, usually unnecessary.
  • We wouldn’t use cleft oak tiles – or at least we’d pay someone who knows what the are doing to fit them!
  • We wouldn’t bother buying materials too far in advance – the door bowed and the new window was just a bit too large.

We wouldn’t try to limewash walls previously painted with acrylic or plastic paint – it rubs off!