Historical Thatch

Recently the East Midlands Master Thatcher’s Association had a meeting with Historical England and the Conservation of Traditional Thatch Group to discuss, amonst other things, trying to preserve as much of the old thatch as possible when rethatching a roof. It was suggested that, where possible, the thatcher should leave the old thatch on the roof and just thatch over the top. The idea being that the existing thatch is of historical interest.

This was met with various arguments against the idea. Mainly, the extra weight that would be added to the roof. Would the rafters be able to take this? Also, the extra height gained, particularly when the roof has a chimney.

It was also suggested that all eaves and gables were left on if they are not rotten. Many thatchers, paticularly in East Anglia strip the eaves and gables back to the timbers to show all new straw.

The outcome of the discussion was basically that it was at the thatchers discretion, but it got me thinking about the history of the thatch on the rooves I have worked on.

Many times, when I have stripped a section of a long straw roof back to the timbers so an extension can go on, I have seen multiple layers of up to 6 foot thickness at the ridge board. Whilst only 2 or 3 layers at the eave, higher up the roof it was 6 or 7, giving the roof a steeper pitch than the rafters originally gave. Each layer has the potential to be laid by a different thatcher, possibly with different techniques. Indeed, the bottom layer could well be the original thatch, hundreds of years old.

Each roof that I strip a layer off from I see something different. Even on my current job I have seen a new way of thatching a cheek of a window. Do any two long straw thatchers work exactly the same? I even see different ways of back filling, different ways of turning the straw for a hip end, different ways of patching underneath the top coat. And all this time I am learning from the previous thatcher. Each time I learn something, I become a better thatcher.

If I am forced to keep as much of the old thatch on the roof and just go over the top, will I stop learning? I will certainly come home a lot cleaner.

So while I agree that we need to keep our heritage and the idea of keeping historical thatch in place is romantic, what is the point of history if we cannot learn from it? Because if nobody sees the old thatch underneath, then nobody will learn from it.

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