The tradition of covering roofs with thatch continues all over the English countryside. Although most buildings are now roofed with tiles, there are still quite a few that have a covering of thatch. The thatch has to be renewed regularly, This is a lengthy and costly business that can only be carried out by the small number skilled thatchers, who operate around the country. Because of the costliness of maintaining it, having a thatched roof is now a conspicuous sign of wealth, whereas once it was not.
THE FRENCH COMPOSER Darius Milhaud (1892-1974) composed the music for a surrealist ballet, “Le Boeuf sur la Toit” (i.e. ‘The Ox on the Roof’) which had its premiere in February 1920 in Paris. Today, the 4th of September 2020, I saw a pig on a roof and on other roofs I saw birds and dogs. None of them moved a muscle. They just sat or stood where they were without moving. No, I have not been taking hallucinatory drugs or daydreaming. These creatures are made of straw and sit on the ridges of thatched roofs in country villages north of London including Abbington Piggot in Cambridgeshire. On previous occasions I spotted these straw animals on the ridges of roofs in Suffolk villages including Stoke by Clare.
In many parts of England, thatchers, proud of their skills, sometimes add decorative straw creatures as finishing touches to their fine handiwork. These ornaments are variously known as ‘dollies’ (not to be confused with ‘straw dollies’) and ‘straw finials’. Many contemporary thatchers are still willing to add a straw finial to a thatched roof.
There are records of sightings of straw ornaments such as I have described dating back to 1689. The use of thatching probably goes back many thousands of years. However, because of its organic composition, thatch does not usually survive long enough to be detected by archaeologists. The remains of some buildings found on archaeological sites have structural features that are strongly suggestive of their suitability to support thatched roofing. Thatching is not confined to the British Isles. It can be found almost all over the globe.
Thatch, being made of straw and other related material does not last forever. It has to be replaced periodically. The same is true of the straw finials. They look great when they are relatively new, but like the thatch, they decay gradually and become deformed. In one village that we visited today, we saw what looked like a squirrel perching on the ridge of a thatched roof. On closer examination, what we were looking at turned out to be the tattered remnants of what might once have been a fine straw animal.
We saw the straw pig on a roof in Abbington Piggott. Having seen this and having had a drink in the village’s pub, the Pig and Abbott, I wondered if the place’s name had anything to do with pigs. The Domesday Book of 1086 list the village as ‘Abintone’, which means ‘estate associated with a man called Abba’. The village became known by its present name by the 17th century, the name being taken from the Pykot or Pigott family who owned the manor between the 15th and 19th centuries. And, just in case you are wondering whether the surname Pigott has anything to do with swine, it does not. It is derived from the Old English word ‘pic’ meaning a hill topped with a sharp point.
We would never have discovered the village of Abbington Piggott had we not been advised by our cousins in Baldock (Hertfordshire) to visit nearby Ashwell, a very attractive village. It was in Ashwell, where there was only one pub open (and it did not serve food), that we were advised that we should continue to Abbington Piggott where we found the welcoming Pig and Abbott as well as the pig on the roof.
You can listen to “Le Boeuf sur la toit” by Darius Milhaud on: https://youtu.be/Bv9ii_uc2Rc
WE HAD JUST CROSSED the River Stour, leaving the county Essex and entering neighbouring Suffolk when we felt the need for coffee. We pulled up next to what seemed to be the only pub in the tiny village of Stoke by Clare and entered.
The village’s name includes the word ‘stoke’, which when used as a geographical term means hamlet or small settlement dependent on a larger place nearby. Stoke by Clare, which was in existence by the 12th century AD if not before, is only about two miles from the far larger and once important town of Clare. In 1124, Richard de Clare, the first Earl of Hertford, moved the Benedictine priory that had been established in his castle at Clare (now in ruins) to Stoke by Clare, thus giving some importance to the place. Today, Stoke is a picturesque, sleepy little village (population less than 500) with a few old houses, some with thatched roofs and some decorated with pargetting. Some of the thatched roofs are adorned with straw animals’ One has three dogs and another a pair of boxing hares. There is also a fine old church that was established at the time the Benedictine Priory moved to Stoke.
Entering the pub was like stepping back more than seventy years except that the diligent publican had equipped the interior with transparent plastic sheets, hanging like shower curtains, to prevent the covid-19 virus from being spread from one table to another. There was one elderly gentleman nursing a pint of beer and no other customers.
We asked the publican if coffee could be obtained. To our surprise and relief, he said that it was available although from the quaint old appearance of the place, which seems to have remained unchanged despite the passage of the centuries, we feared it might not be. My wife asked him:
“What kind of coffee do you make here? Espresso? Cappuccino? Cortado?”
The publican looked bewildered. Then, he replied:
“Coffee … just coffee.”
The coffee he produced was unexceptional, but it was just what we needed, and we enjoyed it in the lovely garden behind the pub. Before we left, we asked him if business had picked up since the easing of the pandemic ‘lockdown’ rules. He told us that it had not. I felt sorry for him as he has done everything to make his delightful old establishment safe for customers including providing hand sanitisers and instituting a one-way system through his tiny pub.