LAW x Nudie Craftsmen: Jeff Helme
“They say that the apprenticeship is five years, but really it’s all your life,” Jeff muses, wrestling his dog-eared kneepads into position. “You’ll always come across a different method, different fixing, different straws…” Today, armed with over twenty-five years experience and flanked by apprentices Charlie and Jack, Jeff is restoring the roof of a row of sixteenth century thatched houses in Boxworth. Sitting halfway between Elsworth and Lolworth, Boxworth is a small village nestled within a patchwork of fields to the north west of Cambridge. It’s a pastoral scene.
Strewn reeds glow rusty-gold across the back garden and miniature windows, thick with lead latticework, punctuate the back of the terrace in peculiar places. Trusting the sturdy, skeletal rafters, the boys peel back a layer of protective mesh skin and set to work on the roof’s fibrous innards. A pair of buzzards circle high above on the late-summer thermals.
“It’s all about the angle and tightness,” Jeff shouts from the ridge of the roof. “If it’s a sharp angle and it’s tight, it’ll last.” Accordingly, Charlie beats the new reeds rhythmically with his forearm to pack them tight, before pinning them in place with wooden spars. Finally, with the thatch at its optimum thickness of approximately twelve inches, Jeff and the boys work diligently to ‘dress’ the reeds in; a ritual that involves brushing the unruly strands out to achieve a firm finish. Jack, whose business card Jeff came across in the pub a year ago, watches attentively from below. “It’s still mind-blowing,” he exclaims. “I’ve learned so much, but there’s still an unbelievable amount I need to learn.”
Palm, Heather, Rushes & Reeds
“Thatching is one of the earliest forms of roofing,” Jeff explains. "The method hasn’t changed, but now it’s much more of a rich man’s roof, than a poor man’s roof.” From palm fronds and heather, to rushes and reeds, the relative ease of using local vegetation established thatching as a low-cost roofing method worldwide. In the United Kingdom, the industry is thriving. “Back in the days, when people used to say it was a dying art, I used to tell them to take a look in the Yellow Pages, because there’d be a whole page of [thatchers] in there,” Jeff remembers. A recent resurgence is in part due to renewed interest in preserving national heritage, alongside thatching’s sustainability and its eco-friendly processes. Jeff and the boys are currently booked up 12 months in advance and work all year round, across the East of England, to keep up with demand.
As a result of methods remaining relatively unaltered for centuries, a thatcher’s tools resemble early implements intended for barbaric torture. A crude poker rests slyly in dappled shade alongside an oddly proportioned rake, iron shears and a well-worn, wooden bludgeon, riddled with holes. Jeff explains that the latter is in fact a variation of a dresser; a stubby beater put to use as an extension of the hand, or, as he persuasively puts it, “to save your hands from being cut to ribbons.”
Life Up The Ladders
“It’s hard physical labour on everything,” he continues. “Our boots don’t last long either,” coughs Charlie, “I go through a pair of boots every six months...” He nods towards a pair of dull, blackish boots lying spent in the grass nearby; both woozily bear ruptured leather grins. Equally, weathered tans and hard hands are emblems of a thatcher’s arduous work. Collectively, the boys are unanimous that a crisp, clear winter morning is the greatest time to be up the ladders. “There hasn’t been a day we haven’t worked because it’s been too cold or snowy,” Jack proclaims. “You just work harder to stay warm.”
Accustomed to working at high heights and awkward angles, whilst constantly on the balls of their feet, the boys scramble across the roof with remarkably balletic grace. A bail of reeds pitched over his shoulder, Charlie – who has several years experience under his belt - strides straight up his steeply pitched ladder without once using his hands for support. Squinting up at the roof beside me, Jack senses my childlike astonishment and slight stab of jealousy. “It was about three or four weeks ago that I managed that for the first time and I thought, yes, quality!” he says, clenching his fists triumphantly.
Jeff & The Boys
Both boys beam with enthusiasm given any opportunity to talk, teach and share their infectious love for thatching’s laborious artistry. “Happy days. It’s just quality, mate. I love it,” Charlie affirms with a grin. Likewise, they greatly respect Jeff, as both a skilled thatcher and teacher. “I don’t play the big boss,” Jeff clarifies, removing his kneepads at the end of the day. “I can teach them and show them, but you’ve got to feel it as well and I can’t teach that. It’s got to be in the person,” he continues, gesticulating passionately. Ultimately, as long as you’re, “always striving to make the best,” you’re alright by Jeff.
Words by Joseph Bond
Shot by Elliot Kennedy