Two summers ago I decided to build a round thatched cob house in my back garden in Wolvercote, near Oxford. I decided not to use any money and to gather all the materials and energy from the locality. I was inspired to dedicate it to my mother, Mother Earth and all mothers.
Laying the foundations
I started with a circle of dry stones laid on firm ground about a foot deep. It is important to lay them without mortar so as to avoid any rising damp. The stones originally came from the ruins of a nearby Nunnery but had spent the last hundred years in a neighbour's wall. It was good to know my foundations were holy! My neighbour, who no longer needed the stones, was happy to exchange them for a hazel arch, which I made and coppiced from local timber.
After laying about 45cm (18in) of stone I started the cob. After a lot of experimentation and undue worry, I found that the earth 30cm (1ft) beneath my feet was absolutely perfect. You need not less than 15% and not more than 50% clay. There's an easy way to tell if your earth is suitable. Shake a jar with a sample of your soil, filled three quarters full with water. The sand settles first, then silt and then the clay. If you are not sure whether you have clay or silt, cut it with a knife and if it is shiny you know it is clay.
Building: Cob Poddling
Next I got some straw from a horse yard within smelling distance, and some water from my own recently dug well and mixed it all with my feet on a tarpaulin-like sheet rescued from the skin of an old trampoline. 'Poddling', as we call it, with the feet is very important. It puts feeling into the walls as well as being more efficient than wearing boots, and ooh that wonderful sensation as it squidges between your toes and soles... Just imagine free reflexology sessions with Mother Earth four times a day for two months. For the weekend party poddlers with sensitive feet a binding of duck tape was a good idea accompanied by a fine funky Caribbean stomping tune.
The wall rose about 10cm (4in) a day, slowly growing like a mushroom out of the ground. In my journal I wrote, "Building with cob allows the Earth to slowly grow and envelop all around you – a gradual and evolving embrace – as the love in each poddle is absorbed into the body of the walls."
Recycled Windows: What to do with a Windscreen
Once the walls had reached hip height I saw a complete lorry windscreen in a skip. Having got it home, it perfectly fitted the circular curve of the wall. This kind of serendipity was happening all the time. I hardly ever went consciously looking for anything, synchronicity was efficiently by-passing the need for research. All I had to do was set the wind-screen into the wall and build up to the glass, with cob, sculpting three gothic portals.
Since you cannot drill into cob I placed various pieces of wood into the wall as I went along. Two hazel logs went in to symbolise the legs of Mother Earth, a feature I often describe as merely 'Sculptural' when asked for an explanation from certain people. Hazel dowels went in as perches, perhaps for birds, or more practically as hooks for chairs. The Shakers used to hang up their chairs in order to save space when they were not sitting down. Just think how much energy is wasted to heat a space above and below an empty chair?! I haven't yet seen a bird on the pegs, but soon after I had secured them a robin actually settled on my head.
Next I found three more conventional windows in the village of North Aston. There was nothing much wrong with them except for 50 years of weathering on their lower sills, so I put them in the wall the other way up to give their unweathered sides another 50 years of exposure. Coming from 15 miles (24km) away these windows are amongst the most exotic features in the building. This connection seems appropriate, however, as I like to think of Wolvercote being unofficially twinned with the village of North Aston, through a vegetable box scheme and a farmers' market.
At eye level I sculpted some alcoves for candles and offerings. They suggest Dovecote-like nesting holes as well as echoing the old tradition of burying items in the wall for good luck.
Placing the last clods of cob above the entrance was a special moment, celebrated by a sparrow hawk that landed on the very spot once I had finished.
Baking bread: A Wheat Straw Thatched Roof
For the roof timbers I was able to use hazel that was too big for hurdle making. The thatch material came from a local thatcher who grows his own long straw wheat. He reaped and bound it and I gathered it from the field, threshed it on my stone garden table, then winnowed it with the draught that blows along my garage corridor and ground it by hand. The resulting flour made excellent bread. There is something very satisfying about eating your own roof!
It took a while to work out how to thatch and at first I did not make it thick enough. I found out I could thicken it up, however, by 'stobbing' – a method traditionally used to patch roofs in the autumn. By now I had run out of straw so it was good luck when Mike, the canal length man, told me there was some Phragmites communis (Norfolk reed) up at Duke's Cut. It was great carrying the 3m (10ft) wide load back on my shoulders and up the high street temporarily stopping the Wolvercote rat run, far more effectively than anything I had achieved as a County Councillor. I was delighted that now at least half of the roof was going to be truly from Wolvercote and that no fossil fuel had been used in the making. It was as if the Genius Loci (the spirit of the place) was forcing me to be even more local. There's nothing more grounding than load carrying, it slows you down to the plodding rhythm of the earth embedding you firmly into the locality.
By the time the first snows came it was Candlemas and the 'hut' was dry. We drank wine from the elder bushes that brushed against the thatched eaves and ate bread from the wheat straw off the roof. Women brought eggs decorated with the markings of local birds and the men brought candles and filled the space with snowdrops. We sang and danced echoing the spiral shape of the reused bricks on the floor.
Clay Earth Plaster Paint
Come the spring it was time to lighten up the walls. Making lime wash would have used up too much of my fire wood so I decided to use an Alì. An Alì is an earth paint-come-plaster, in this case made from clay, chalk and flour. I cycled to the Chilterns and collected chalk conveniently piled up by a badger outside his set. And I collected yellow clay piled up by a builder outside his extension footings. I ground up and mixed them and added flour as a binder. The result was a nice clay paint which has stood up well this winter. If the walls were more exposed, however, I would have needed to use a lime wash.
Cycling the distance to the Chilterns and back gave me a strong sense of the hut's place within the Universe. The Chiltern Hills was also where my mother walked and I grew up, and Oxford is where I went to school. This action for me symbolically helped bring the two worlds together.
By June, the wheat (originally threshed from the thatch straw and sown in late autumn) was good and high. Many people came to a summer celebration filling the hut with flowers and we blessed the wheat with a line from Virgil: Igreus est allis vigor et caelestis origo which means: To these seeds a flame-like vigor pertains and an origin celestial. It seemed only fitting to respect the wheat in this way, as it is the most multi functional aspect of the building; it is in the walls, the roof, the paint and often the stomachs of those who enter.
Celtic tradition: harvest festival and Autumn equinox
At Lammas, the Celtic harvest festival between the summer solstice and the Autumn equinox, we placed a large bowl of water on the floor in the middle of the circle. Unexpectedly a light appeared on the wall. It was a reflection of the setting sun in the bowl of water. It moved diagonally downwards and at a point exactly below the hook on the east west axis it formed a perfect oval, as if to symbolise ripeness.
Once winter was under way, 12 of us gathered for story telling. Tightly packed in with lots of mulled wine, blankets, hot water bottles and candles we managed to keep warm. The circular nature of the building is particularly good for drawing a tale out of everyone and the no mellowing impact aspect of the oral tradition is particularly appropriate for the space.
At the winter solstice I filled the central bowl with earth, around the rim I heeled in long sprigs of holly and in the middle lit some candles. My wife, my son and my niece joined me. In the cold night the candles lit up our breath and we blew faintly causing the flames to flicker and cast leafy shadows on the walls. Like the dappled sun in summer it reminded us of warmer days to come. My niece said, "How beautiful" and my son said, "Yes, like so many amazing things that have happened in the hut".
Ritual and celebration
The use of the hut as a place for tales, ritual and celebration is slowly evolving. Some people react by saying they could happily live in it. And for me it suggests the possibility of a lifestyle intimately connected with land where necessity and inspiration become inseparable, where celebration and the need to survive are One. And to this end I am planning a slightly larger dwelling in the countryside north of Oxford and that I hope is another tale
Michael Buck is an artist and has taught art and permaculture. He now coppices woodland and makes hurdles as well as cob buildings.
Useful Resources - Books
The Cob Builders Handbook - You can Hand-Sculpt your Own Home
Building with Cob - A Step by Step Guide
Home Work - Handbuilt Shelter