There is a certain aesthetic appeal – and many practical advantages – to having a thatched roof on a building. You can apply this type of roof to anything from a replica of an Elizabethan theatre in the centre of a major city (Shakespeare’s ‘Globe’, in London) to a crofter’s cottage in Scotland (‘Gearrannan’, Blackhouse Village, Isle of Lewis, Scotland).
Many years ago, I used to visit the Norfolk Broads – now the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads National Park - and saw mature Norfolk (or Common) Reed (Phragmites australis), being harvested from the seemingly endless reed beds. When dried, this gives a superb thatching material, and is used in a much wider area than just East Anglia. Other types of material, straw from wheat, for example – gives a long-lasting thatch, but it depends what the pitch of the roof is (a minimum of 45°), whether or not it is in an area of heavy annual snowfall (the supporting wooden structure underneath a thatched roof is ‘lightweight’ compared to that used to support tile or slate roofs), and whether or not there are trees nearby – this leads to leaf litter and encourages moss growth.
Here we see Norfolk Reed stacked alongside a partially thatched house, close by the River Nidd in Knaresborough, Yorkshire. The bundles of reed will be laid tightly on a wooden support structure, secured with ‘U’ shaped ‘sways’ of either steel or the more traditional hazel, then ‘dressed’, or made level, with a leggett – a flat, handled, wooden rectangle, studded with nails, a tool which has been identified in manorial rolls from the 12th century! Sadly, many reed beds have been neglected, so that Britain can only supply around 25% of its annual needs. Most ‘water reed’, as it is known, comes from Turkey or even further afield. The British Reed Growers Association and the British Reed and Sedge Cutters Association are trying to revive this rare agricultural profession. Incentives are being offered to assist young people who wish to learn this highly seasonal work, and also to provide income-earning opportunities outside of the autumnal harvesting season.
Thatching is a highly skilled profession – more an art, at times – and anyone contemplating having a property thatched from new, or having a property repaired, would be well-advised to engage a Master Thatcher, arrange to visit examples of his past work, and make sure that he is conversant with your type of property. Listen to your thatcher, and you may end up finding that he will save you money by undertaking a repair scheme (filling holes made by animals like squirrels, or birds) and renewing the ridge, which is usually made of the more flexible sedge and often incorporates decorative elements, rather than provide a whole new ‘coat work’ (the main thatch).
A well-made thatch will last – depending on climate and type of material – between 30 and 80 years. The ridge will need replacing every 15 to 20 years, however. Whatever thatch is chosen, the home will be warmer in winter and cooler in summer, and the value of the property will markedly increase, compared to non-thatched homes. Thatch is beautiful, traditional, and ecologically friendly!