There are about 60,000 thatched roofs in the UK and many more ‘New’ thatch homes are being built every year.
The art of thatching dates back to the Mesolithic or Middle Stone Age. The word thatch comes from the Old English word ‘thaec’ meaning roof-covering, and recent research and archaeological investigations have expanded our understanding of the ancient thatch, and post medieval thatching materials and methods.
Thatch was the most common form of roof covering in nearly every part of Britain during the medieval period, and methods of thatching have changed little over the last five hundred years with techniques being traditionally passed down from generation to generation.
In England the oldest surviving thatch dates from the early 14th century where original base-coats of ancient thatch are preserved beneath later coats- this is found on former open-hall buildings where the thatch is blackened by the smoke that rose from open fires before chimneys had been developed.
Over 250 roofs in Southern England have base coats of thatch that were applied over 500 years ago- giving us direct evidence of the types of materials that were used for thatching in the medieval period, and providing invaluable insights into the agriculture and building technology of their time.
On many older buildings patching and re-thatching over many centuries has created layers of thatch up to two metres thick. These distinct layers can be excavated and sampled using archaeological methods to unravel the individual thatching history of a property as well as chart the changes that have occurred in the materials and methods used in a locality or region.
Although there is virtually no archaeological evidence for the pre-historic use of thatch, it is likely that plants or vegetable matter such as turf were used for the earliest roofs. Documentary evidence for thatching dates back to at least c.700 AD.
Thatching continued to be popular in rural areas up till the late 19th century and the Industrial Revolution. With the expansion of the canals and later the railway network- gradually the price of roof coverings decreased (particularly Welsh Slate), making it accessible to most sectors of the population.
It is estimated that in 1800 there were nearly 1 million thatched buildings in England, but from around 1860 there was a steady decline until the latter part of the 20th century.
Today here are estimated to be around 1,000 Thatcher’s working in England. Most of these are sole traders or companies of under 5 employees. The majority of thatching work in England is carried out to older buildings, most of which are listed.
Thatch is a good natural insulator due to the way air is trapped between the layers, making the building below it warm in winter and cool in summer. A good thatched roof not only makes a country cottage picturesque, it is also remarkably long lasting. A roof thatched by a skilled craftsman can last 40 to 70 years without needing refurbishment, all the while providing excellent, watertight insulation.
The vast majority of modern British thatching, uses just two types of plant. Water reed and wheat based straw.
Water Reed– One of the oldest thatching materials Water Reed was in use before any cultivated crops were grown. The county that provided the bulk of this material lent it it’s name: Norfolk reed.
The Norfolk Broads are the largest area of lowland freshwater fen in the UK with approximately 2000 hectares of open fen remaining, with twelve percent of this open fen managed as commercial reed and sedge for thatching. It takes 4–5 acres of well-managed reed bed to produce enough reed to thatch an average house.
All evidence indicates that water reed was rarely used for thatching outside of East Anglia; and large reed beds have been uncommon in most of England since the Anglo-Saxon period.
It is estimated that over 80% of the water reed used in the UK is now imported from Hungary, Turkey, Eastern Europe, China and South Africa.
Wheat Based Straw– The evidence surviving within historic roofs indicates that in England the vast majority were thatched with wheat straw – the by-product of grain production.
In areas where a cereal crop was abundant, it was only natural that it also provided enough straw for thatching- from oats and barley in the north- to rye or wheat further south- for thousands of years farmers re-used their cereal seeds and slowly created a unique variety which was suited to their land.
Wheat Reed & Long Straw- Most of the straw used over the past two centuries could be described as either ‘combed wheat reed’ or ‘long straw’, although there were many local variations. In the West Country, wheat was carefully grown, harvested, threshed and ‘combed’ to remove grain, leaves, weeds and short or broken straw without crushing the stem, producing ‘combed wheat reed’ (also called ‘Devon reed’ or ‘wheat reed’). Combed wheat reed spread beyond the West Country in the 1960s and 1970s, and is now commonly used throughout England.
The best quality thatching straw is grown from older wheat varieties that produce tall, strong-stemmed straw without the use of artificial fertilisers.
Good quality straw thatch can last for more than 40 years when applied by a skilled Thatcher, and should not require frequent maintenance.
Where you are in Britain dictates the choice of thatching material, due to local availability
|Long Wheat straw||Inland, arable areas
(in the West Country they use combed wheat reed – a form of wheat straw)
|Originally a by-product; farmers now specialise in growing thatching straw with grain as the by-product.|
|Reed||Norfolk Broads||Reed isn’t a by-product; it grows annually as a main crop and it’s cut every other year.|
|Heather||Northumbria or Scotland||Heather isn’t harvested much these days but used to be cut every 15 years to use on roofs.|
Thatch isn’t just for Listed or Old Buildings
An example of this is the innovative project at the University of East Anglia where thatch was used to form the walls of their new Enterprise Centre using natural and bio-renewable materials sourced through local supply chains. Because the thatched walls are vertical, they never get any fungal decay. and so don’t wear back.
The Beauty of Thatch