Thatch in the 21st Century

Clive Fewins

 

Thatch is enjoying a revival in England. But there are increasing concerns at English Heritage about the level of imports of water reed which it fears will lead to the erosion of some of our thatching traditions. Clive Fewins reports…

Thatch - Henry James said it represented 'unmitigated England' - is arguably the most attractive and almost certainly the oldest of the roofing materials still in regular use in this country. To expatriots and others the world over, the snug look of a cosy collection of thatched homes gathered round the village church still presents a vivid image of rural England.

But thatch is far more than this. It is the archetypal roofing material. In Britain, archaeologists have found evidence of buildings with straw roof coverings dating back to 500bc, and today there are known to be at least 30,000 thatched buildings in England alone, some 24,000 of which are listed. Far from being a dying craft, thatch is thriving.

At a major conference organised by English Heritage in London in November 1999 the then Chairman, Sir Jocelyn Stevens, stated that while thatching is undergoing a resurgence, with many new thatched homes being built in the countryside, the thatching industry itself was 'far from a scene of bucolic harmony', with many conflicts and disagreements between thatchers and conservationists. Despite the fact that England is still regarded as having a far more diverse and healthy thatching tradition than any other European country, there were genuine fears within English Heritage for the future of that tradition.

MATERIALS

Over the years all sorts of materials - oats, marsh reeds, broom, heather and bracken, and various grasses - have been used for thatching. Today only three materials are widely used in England; long straw, combed wheat reed and water reed.

Long straw and combed wheat reed are two methods that use the same material - wheat straw - only in a different way. Long straw has a distinctive 'poured on' look that gives it a unique exterior appearance. This is because it has gone through a different threshing process from which it emerges bruised and bent. When on the roof it does not compact like the other two main forms of thatch and it retains its 'shaggy' look throughout its life.

Combed wheat reed has a much neater, trimmed look. It is seen widely in the south and west of England and is applied by a completely different method. It is dressed, and knocked into shape. Long straw, by contrast, is placed in position, then raked.

Water reed - sometimes referred to as Norfolk reed (though much of it comes in from Eastern Europe and Turkey nowadays) is a completely different material. Unlike the straw used for the other two forms of thatching it was never an agricultural by-product. Water reed is a true reed and is regarded as a superior material. Traditionally it costs slightly more than the other two materials.

REGIONAL STYLES

The appearance of a roof is affected not only by the choice of material, but also in the detailing of eaves, dormers, ridges and surface decoration in particular. Distinct regional styles of thatching are apparent, and variations may occur from one village to another, particularly where one style has been adopted by local thatchers and handed down from one generation to the next.

However, do not expect to find any one style in any area of the country. You will find all the styles used throughout the principal thatched areas. Nevertheless, the regional variations are striking. For example, in Devon and other areas of the South-West, where the 'tea-cosy' look is renowned, cottages with thick cob walls one storey high are able to support only light roofs, with heavily overhung dormers that attempt to let daylight into the rooms behind. These cottages characteristically have roofs of combed wheat reed, piled in many layers, the ones underneath frequently being several hundred years old.

Water reed roofs, also found in Devon but more widespread in Dorset and parts of the Home Counties, have a stiffer, more assertive look and often sport a sharply-defined incised patterned ridge. Water reed is coarser in texture and stiffer in appearance than combed wheat reed, which has an altogether softer and smoother look.

Long straw roofs are to be seen in many parts of the South-East, and in Hampshire and Northamptonshire in particular. However, it is in East Anglia, and the characteristically steep-pitched roofs of cottages in Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk that long straw really comes into its own.

In East Anglia long straw thatchers will cite examples of roofs constructed from the material that they say have lasted as long as 60 years. It is claimed that the drying winds and the good air circulation found in the east of England are one reason for this. Another reason is the steep roof pitches common in their part of the country. In Norfolk and Suffolk, as well as in parts of Essex, pitches of 60 degrees are not unusual.

You can usually tell a long straw thatch because the eaves and barges are nearly always finished with 'liggers' - criss-crossed lengths of split hazel or willow - used on the surface. In other forms of thatch these are generally applied to the ridge only.

Ridges are constructed in 'plain' (flush) and 'blocked' (raised) styles and also in'wrap-over' and 'butts-up' (with the ends pushed together). Wrapover ridges - particularly if they are raised with an ornamental criss-cross pattern - are inevitably more expensive because there is more labour and material involved.

CHANGING STYLES

The need to replace thatch at regular intervals means that the appearance of thatched roofs can change dramatically, affecting the character of each building and, in time, the character of a locality. It has been said that no other element of traditional architecture is prone to such radical alteration.

Eight years ago there was a celebrated case in Northamptonshire in which a man who had rethatched his listed cottage with a block-cut patterned ridge that was considered by the local authority to be out of keeping with the vernacular, won his appeal against removing and replacing the ridge.

The affair caused a good deal of comment in thatching circles, and highlighted English Heritage's concern that we are in danger of losing aspects of our native thatching tradition. In particular the rising level of imported water reed and the greater mobility of thatchers is believed to be causing a diminution of distinct styles that characterise different parts of the country.

This issue has been made more complex by the recent arrival of a new form of straw used for both combed wheat reed and long straw thatching. It is Triticale, a cross between wheat and rye. It has the advantage of being less susceptible to some of the climatic problems that have caused the poor harvests of other forms of wheat straw in the past two seasons. Many thatchers are now using it as a substitute for combed wheat reed. On the roof it is indistinguishable from the latter.

A recent booklet on thatching produced by English Heritage

THE GREAT DEBATE

English Heritage called the first national conference on thatching in London late 1999. Entitled Thatching, the Future of an English Tradition, the day-long event, at which the keynote speech was delivered by HRH The Prince of Wales, was also used to launch a 20 page illustrated booklet Thatch and Thatching, to serve as a guide on conservation issues to professionals and local authority employees involved with thatching.

The conference was not without its controversial moments.

With the aid of slides several speakers emphasised that when thatching materials change, so too do the architectural details of the roofs they cover. At eaves, verges, ridges and chimneys, around dormers, across valleys and hips, the visual appearance of individual buildings is often drastically affected. When this process takes place with two or three properties in a historic group in a village the change to the character of the local area becomes even more dramatic.

Time and again however English Heritage speakers emphasised that they felt that the tradition of straw thatching in England was under attack by elements within the thatching industry who regarded straw as an inferior material and, in the words of Sir Jocelyn Stevens, believe that 'the availability and technological superiority attributed to water reed qualifies it for use in all cases'.

English Heritage speakers acknowledged that with poor harvests of thatching straw in recent years many householders are turning to the traditionally more expensive water reed, principally because it has a reputation for longevity.

Several speakers favoured the rights of homeowners to use the material of their own choice on their roofs, particularly as thatch is perceived as being an expensive form of roofing that needs more maintenance and more frequent replacement than other forms of roofing.

Many thatchers take the view that it is important to preserve the historic basecoat, as thatching materials and styles change in what is basically a dynamic, evolving craft. Local styles, it was pointed out, had evolved over many hundreds of years at the hands of dynasties of craftsmen. Almost certainly the appearance of thatch applied today in most areas of the country would look very different from the thatched roofs to be seen in medieval times.

Other thatchers contended that a good craftsman will choose the best available material for his client. In some areas this would inevitably mean replacing inferior materials with more durable ones. On listed buildings it was accepted that this would sometimes lead to conflicts between thatchers and conservation officers.

A strongly worded speech from Roger Scanlan, chairman of the National Council of Master Thatchers Associations accused English Heritage of taking 'no constructive interest in thatch for the past 25 years' and of finally creating a hurriedly-produced document that contained 'errors and technical failings'.

The core of Roger Scanlan's speech was that thatching should be left to thatchers. He said that he agreed with the English Heritage view that moving from long straw to water reed in areas where historically buildings were thatched with the former was a bad practice that changed the character and appearance and also destroyed the basecoats of many historic properties. However, he believed that this practice had now largely halted and that in the current climate there was greater consultation between conservationists and thatchers to protect historic thatched roofs.

Other speakers urged that there should be greater consensus on the scope and standards of conservation practice within the thatching industry.

The argument will doubtless continue. It is an area in which there is never likely to be a true meeting of minds between any two thatchers, let alone the principal thatchers' organisations and English Heritage.

Fortunately, it cannot be denied that the great joy of thatch is that in the hands of a good craftsman it takes on a wonderful undulating, fluid quality and can achieve all sorts of effects that are impossible with other roofing materials.



Recommended Reading

  • Thatch: Thatching in England Vol 1 1790-1940, Vol 2 1940-1990, English Heritage Research Transactions, James & James/English Heritage, 2000

 

 

This article is reproduced from The Building Conservation Directory, 2000

Author

CLIVE FEWINS is a freelance writer and journalist with a particular interest in the conservation of historic buildings. He is a regular contributor to Thatched Living and attended the English Heritage Thatching conference in November 1999

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