Tuesday, July 23, 2013
Brush with the lore
Peacocks, lambs, ducks, foxes: thatchers often like to top off their roofs with an animal finial. I’ve been noticing these flourishes for years, and, having seen flocks of pheasants in one village and congregations of ducks in another, I’d wondered idly, without really thinking about it, whether these were craftsmen’s ‘signatures’, rather as people used to say that the ornate patterns cut in the straw just below the roof ridge ‘belonged’ to the individual thatcher, and were his way of making his mark.
For her 1939 book Made in England, for which she trawled deeply among local tradition and lore, Dorothy Hartley asked about the significance of these figures and was given various answers. Some of her interlocutors said that the ornament identified the thatcher; some that it related to the owner of the house (or of the haystack, because stacks were also thatched and sometimes topped with animal figures). Another interviewee replied gnomically: 'Corn bird steals no corn and frits off corn buntin'.' A kind of scarecrow, then. I know someone who keeps a life-size model of a heron next to his fish pond for a similar reason. Nowadays, on a roof that's already covered with wire mesh to stop birds removing the straw, a fox or peacock is likely to be there because thatcher and owner think it will look good, or amusing, or catch the eye of bystanders. You can even buy straw animals online to add to your roof. Long live traditional crafts…