I am fortunate enough to live in an old farmhouse with a thatched roof. Another house in the village here was being re-thatched recently, and it was fascinating watching the thatcher at work whenever we drove past… and it set me thinking about thatch and how, even in 2016, there are still so many thatched roofs around.
When I started investigating, the first thing I discovered is that although thatch is popular in Germany, The Netherlands, Denmark, parts of France and Ireland, there are more thatched roofs in the United Kingdom than in any other European country. On top of that, I found that Devon has more thatched properties than any other English county, so no wonder they seem quite commonplace to my eye!
Thatching materials can include heather, gorse, broom, flax, reed, rye and wheat straw. These light, but incredibly durable, materials were particularly used in areas, such as Devon, where buildings were made of cob or clunch that are less able to carry the weight of stone, tile or slate.
The materials used for thatching were local and cheap. As I so often discover in my research, this ancient tradition was also very efficient and, while today we rush around being ‘green’ and insulating everything, thatch was doing a great job and ticking all the ecologically sound boxes from the outset! It is naturally weather-resistant and is also a natural insulator, and air pockets within straw thatch insulate a building in both warm and cold weather, so a thatched roof ensures your house is cool in summer and warm in winter. Thatch also has very good resistance to wind damage, so no flying slates to worry about!
Good quality straw thatch can last for more than 30 years when created by a skilled thatcher. Traditionally, a new layer of straw was applied over the weathered surface, and this ‘spar coating’ tradition has created thatch over 7ft thick on some very old buildings! The straw is bundled into ‘yelms’ before it is taken up to the roof and attached using staples, known as ‘spars’, made from twisted hazel sticks.
Technological change in the farming industry had a huge impact on the popularity of thatching. The availability of good quality thatching straw declined in England after the introduction of the combine harvester in the late 1930s and the switch to growing short-stemmed wheat varieties. Increasing use of nitrogen fertiliser in the 1960s–70s also weakened straw and reduced its longevity so thatched roofs became expensive to build. Since the 1980s, however, there has been a big increase in straw quality as specialist growers have returned to growing older, tall-stemmed, ‘heritage’ varieties of wheat… as ever, the original way is so often the best!
Thatchers themselves, highly skilled tradesmen and much in demand, all have individual ‘signatures’ that are often seen in the way they treat dormers, eaves and gables. If you have thatched properties in your area, you might be able to spot these fascinating little details! You will also often see little thatched figures, such as a pheasant, created on the ridge of a new thatch. I think these are charming and really add to the appearance of a property.
Today, with the enthusiasm for energy conservation and minimising one’s carbon footprint, eco houses are being built with thatched roofs and hay bale walls… rather like ‘going organic’ and growing your own veg, nothing is new in this world!