The house that dung built

Teacher: Peter Cockrell

From: Blewbury, Oxfordshire

Lesson: Wattle & Daub

Wattle and Daub was all the rage in villages and settlements on our tiny isle 3,000 years ago, but as time has gone on, quicker and more regular methods of building have taken its place. This said, and as testament to its durability, wattle and daub still holds a few houses together to this day – Peter Cockrell’s being one.

As with all ancient crafts, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find experienced practitioners of wattle and daub. As such, repairing a wattle and daub house can be extraordinarily expensive. Knowing this, and recognising that the materials themselves are actually very cheap, Peter set about teaching himself how to make and repair his own walls.

OV3A0140

OV3A0142

It took him four years to perfect the craft, but he’s been reaping the rewards ever since. Not only has he repaired rotten walls on house, but he’s even built himself an envy-inducing workshop in his garden, entirely out of 1x1m wattle and daub panels.

With an eternal interest in any ancient craft, and labour intensive crafts in particular, we couldn’t wait to build a wattle and daub wall for ourselves. After three hours hard graft, however, we’d gotten roughly 1/8th of the way through one panel and, as we hammered each hazel stick into place, developed more and more respect for Peter, whose patience would shame a saint.

What have you been teaching us today?

Today I’ve been teaching you about wattle and daub – a technique that’s been used for making walls for over 3,000 years. It involves building a basket work on staves with hazels, then plastering with mud, dung and straw. The result is a very sound, durable screen.

You’re retired now, but what did you do as a day job?

I had a two part career, starting off as a meteorologist. I worked for the meteorological research flight at Farnborough, where I did a lot of research on aircraft instrumented to measure weather parameters. During that time, I became involved with computers and wrote a lot of software for processing meteorological data. When I finally had to leave met research flight, I got a bursary to go to university to study computing and then returned to the Met Office headquarters. I was tasked with producing an algorithm that, instead of following a single contour across the map, swept all of the contours at once, making it fast and efficient. It’s still being used by the Met Office today, and you still see it on BBC weather broadcasts.

How did you develop an interest in Wattle and Daub?

When I moved jobs, I needed to move house. My wife and I began to look around the South Oxfordshire area and happened upon this one, which we fell in love with. Though we thought we knew what we wanted in the way of a house, and had a checklist for all things we wanted it to be, we bought this house without referring to that checklist and it had a lot wrong with it.

Wattle and daub suddenly came into our lives, because the house was built of it. So I learned how to use the right tools. It was a slow process to start with, but I managed to repair the house in four years. It was essentially sound in its timber frame, but the wattle and daub panels had badly rotted because they’d been painted with the wrong paint and become wet. I was forced to learn how to do it because it’s quite hard to get anybody to do it commercially, and anybody who does do it charges a great deal.

What do you like about it?

I love it because it’s a wonderful material that comes from the countryside. The hazel sticks can be cut out of a hedge (and mine were) and the daub itself is made of subsoil, which is free, with some sand, lime, dung and straw, if you feel like it. It’s virtually free, very durable and surprisingly warm in a house.

Can you share one interesting fact about wattle and daub?

The most interesting thing about it is there are no metal fixings in a wattle and daub panel. So an entire timber framed house made in middle ages didn’t need any metal fixings. All the woodwork was done with pegs, and so on, and the wattle and daub was entirely free of any kind of metal, without even needing tools. We’ve been using trowels and draw knives today, but they’re quite unnecessary. The original daub would’ve been mixed in a pit by cart horses, and the men would’ve thrown it on and moulded it by hand. This said, it would have been horrible to do! Their hands must have been a terrible state.

And one final thing… Did you use dung for your house?

I did, yes! It helped my image as well actually, because I really enjoy this penniless cottager thing. If I do any work now though, I don’t bother with it.

OV3A0304

OV3A0343

What we learned

  • Donkey hair is softer and finer than horse hair which makes it the perfect ingredient for wattle and daub
  • A wattle and daub house doesn't have any metal fixings, everything is made with wooden joints
  • Wattle and daub is surprisingly insulating, coming close to modern building techniques
  • Dung isn't a necessary ingredient, but is great at binding, and adds an authentic feel to the daub