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Starting in the Bronze Age, house builders topped their structures with straw, or thatch, to protect residents from the elements. Centuries later, thatch is still keeping people dry, including writer Cat Allen, who explains the material’s history and future.
Text by: Cat Allen
Country: England

spent much of my childhood living in one of the United Kingdom’s estimated 60,000 properties with roofs made of straw. I considered it a novelty to live under thatch, as the roof covering is known. My house looked like it belonged on a postcard, a “chocolate-boxcottage, the quintessential English architectural element.

Over the years thatch has become less common, although it endures in more rural parts of the country. There, villages full of cottages topped with perfectlytranslate>sculpted reed hats are plentiful.

But outside of England, these houses sparked conversation and wonder. When I lived in Canada, people thought I was joking when I told them my father’s house had a roof made of straw. They would ask: “Really? Doesn’t the rain come in?”

Rather enjoying the exclamations of disbelief, I would assure them that we could enjoy our cups of tea in dry conditions in houses that didn’t flood as soon as it started to rain.

The technique originated in the Bronze Age. The first thatched buildings date back to around 4500 B.C., as people gravitated away from more primitive roofing options such as animal hides and leaves. Back then, thatching was commonly implemented using sticks, logs and grass. But the robust water reed eventually became the material of choice. The reeds would grow in ponds until they reached the optimum height, when they would be cut, dried and then layered on top of a simple wooden structure. The reeds were fixed in place using pieces of a flexible wood such as hazel. Straw and other readily available materials were also used in a similar way.

The result was a long-lasting, waterproof and relatively cheap roofing solution. Thatched roofs continued to grow in popularity well into the 1800s. Welsh slate became commercially available in 1820; however, thatch was still common. An agricultural recession at the end of the 19th century led to a rapid decline in thatched roofs as poverty swept across England. Longer-lasting options, such as slate, metal, and tiles, were used instead, and thatched roofs became associated with poverty.

Today, thatched roofs are a sign of affluence. Some new buildings are designed with thatched roofs to mimic this classic architecture. Ironically, thatched properties generally have higher market values because more people want to own homes that use the quick and cheap method of keeping a family dry.

In addition, strict conservation rules require property owners to maintain their roofs in their original condition, and in recent years England has also seen an increase in popularity of preserving historical buildings, many of which are thatched.

But increased insurance premiums, risk of fire and the huge price tag of periodically replacing your thatch can certainly make it unattainable or undesirable for some. Thatch needs to be replaced every 25 to 40 years, depending on the quality of the reed used, the skills of the thatcher, and weather conditions such as rain and wind. Maintaining the tradition by hiring a skilled worker and buying expensive materials can be costly. One thatcher reportedly recommends that his clients save about £1,500 ($2,135 USD) a year to cover the cost when it comes time to replace the roof.

It is no surprise that the number of thatched properties in the country has declined, which has led to fewer professional thatchers. About 1,000 full-time thatchers are thought to be working today in Britain.

So what is it like being a thatcher?

Alan Prince, of southwest England and a member of the Devon and Cornwall Master Thatchers Association, answered our questions about his interesting career.

TeaTime Magazine: How did you originally become a thatcher?

Alan Prince: Well, after serving in the Submarine Service, I felt a job in the fresh air would suit me, so I phoned local thatchers in Devon, and the second one said he’d take me on as an apprentice.

TT: How old were you when you first started, and do you feel as if you are still learning the art of thatching?

AP: I was 28 years old when I started. My apprenticeship lasted for only two years, after which I had to start up on my own for financial reasons. Yes, I feel as if I have been learning ever since.

TT: Would you say that every roof is different?

AP: Yes, there’s always some feature that needs a new approach.

TT: How long can it take to thatch an average -size house?

AP: As a rule of thumb, we usually allow two weeks per bedroom, so for a normal-size house, that’s about six weeks based on two of us working.

TT: What is the most interesting roof you have thatched?

AP: I’d have to say The Cott Inn at Dartington, near Totnes in Devon. We had to do a re-thatch after a devastating fire. The building is the longest thatched pub in England.

TT: Yes, a beautiful building, a real quintessential English pub. We know that most thatchers put a kind of signature on their roofs. Do you have a personalised design motif to distinguish your thatching?

AP: Yes, I choose to finish the ridge of the roof in a special way. That way if I made any mistakes, any local thatcher would know who had thatched the roof and who was guilty.

TT: Do you have a favourite stage of thatching a roof?

AP: Yes, the final day!

TT: What five words come to mind when you think of thatching?

AP: Weather, sun, rough (hands), satisfaction, smell (of new wheat reed).

TT: Have you ever found anything interesting when working on a roof?

AP: Yes, when we re-thatched the Cott Inn, the pub I mentioned earlier, we found old coins within the thatch, placed on the chimney ledges for good luck. Also we found a mummified cat put there to ward off evil spirits. All of these things are thought to date from when the Inn was first built in around the year 1350.

TT: What an interesting element of the job. Have you ever found thatching to be a type of meditation? What do you think about whilst you are 30 feet up on a roof?

AP: I suppose so; you could call it something like that. Oddly enough I was discussing something similar with two other thatchers yesterday. We decided that there are two types of thatcher, the one who gets depressed because of the isolation and boredom, and the other who thinks it’s the best job in the world with few cares and worries, (mostly) fantastic, laid-back clients, and something positive to show at the end of most days.

TT: What would be your dream thatching job?

AP: It would have to include enough challenges to make it interesting, with amusing clients, and in a great location.

TT: How would you describe a typical day in the life of a thatcher?

AP: Up at 6:30 to eat a good breakfast, make a flask of real coffee, without which thatching cannot start! Pick up assistants, go to the reed store to load up a day’s worth of materials (we rarely keep much reed on site), drive to the location of the house, and get ready. We then roll up the tarpaulins, and get started. We stop for a coffee break at 11 a.m. and lunch at 1 p.m. The work day usually lasts until about 5 p.m., and on a Friday we finish up in the pub!

TT: It sounds like a long day and that you deserve a drink by the time you get to Friday! What sort of things can affect your job? We can imagine spending hours at a time on top of a roof in England might not be the ideal situation in certain climes.

AP: Without a doubt, the weather. Also, quality of materials and clients can have an impact.

So how long will thatch be a norm in this country? I personally hope that it continues to be a popular choice for homeowners. It is a beautiful element of rural England and a tradition to be appreciated. However, trends and traditions do naturally progress and develop, and based on available materials, skills, tastes, and technology, who knows what will be considered the “chocolate box” of English cottages in a few hundred years. For now though, I’m going to go inside my thatched home to have a nice cup of tea in the dry.

TOP FACTS:

Devon and Cornwall Master Thatchers Association exists to improve and maintain the standard of thatching, ensuring good working conditions for thatchers and to assist the owners of thatched properties.

England is still the country in the European Union with the most thatched properties.

The English county of Norfolk is now one of the only parts of the country that grows water reed. Due to high demand, most reeds are now imported from countries such as Hungary, Austria, and China.

Thatching costs are estimated at about £75 per square foot, ($142 USD at time of writing), around £20,000 (just under $30,000 USD) for an average three-bedroom house.

Thatched houses can also be found in more temperate countries, where it is more usual to use palm fronds and leaves.

Thatched roofs were banned after the Great Fire of London in 1666 because they were seen as one of the main causes of the fire spreading so rapidly throughout the city. The ban is still in place to this day, and The Globe Theatre needed special permission to be able to replicate the original roofing design of Shakespeare ‘s theatre.




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Thatch: Cheap roofing, rich tradition


In the United Kingdom around 60,000 properties have roofs made of straw, called thatch roofs. These houses are also known as chocolate-box cottages.

The technique of thatching roofs originated in the Bronze Age about 4500 B.C. when people shifted from covering their houses with hides and leaves. Thatch provided a long-lasting, waterproof, and relatively cheap roofing solution. Thatch was originally made of sticks, logs, and grass, but water reed and straw later, became the most popular materials.

At the end of the 19th century there was an agricultural recession in England that led to widespread poverty. People started using longer-lasting options such as slate, metals, and tiles. Thatch became associated with poverty and its use declined quickly.

Nowadays, however, thatched roofs are a sign of affluence, as the cost of installing and maintaining a thatched roof is quite high. It is estimated that there are only around 1000 professional thatchers. But if you can afford the cost, you will be blessed with a beautiful house that will keep you warm and dry and keep alive an ancient English tradition.

 

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Thatch: Cheap roofing, rich tradition

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Vocabulary

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