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.

Preparing a thatched roof structure

Builders will often ask how to finish a structure so that it is ready for thatch. I thought it would be easier to share some photos of a perfect roof to thatch onto, rather than explain it verbally, so here goes.

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Here we see the corner. There is an aris rail on the eaves and gable, this gives a little kick to the material, which helps with the tension when fixing to the roof. The battens are spaced at 9 inches apart, which is ideal for straw. For reed, battens can be 12 inches apart, but it doesn’t matter if they are closer.

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This shows the eave of water reed being formed. You can see how the aris rail is doing its job. If it wasn’t there, the reed is much more likley to slip off the roof as there would be no kick.

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On the top, a ridge board is needed. This one is perfect as it is slightly raised. This doesn’t have to be the case, as the thatcher can raise the level using rolls made from straw or reed, but by doing it this way it saves the thatcher a little bit of work, and gives a slighlty raised structure to get a screw or spike into when thatching the top course.

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If you are adding fire protection to the building, then this photo will help. The fire board or membrane goes on top of the rafters. On top of this comes vertical counter battens. These go directly on top of the rafters, so the thatcher knows where the rafters are so he can fix to them when the thatch goes on. On top of the counter battens are the horizontal battens. This allows for an air gap under the thatch, letting it breathe.

Tradition vs Evolution

99% of thatchers will claim to be a traditional craftsman, and some will say they are more traditional than most. But what does tradition actually mean?

[mass noun] The transmission of customs or beliefs from generation to generation, or the fact of being passed on in this way:

[count noun] A long-established custom or belief that has been passed on from one generation to another:

[in singular] An artistic or literary method or style established by an artist, writer, or movement, and subsequently followed by others:

Source: http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/tradition

There is no doubt that the vast majority of thatching has to be traditional, as the method of applying the material to the roof has not changed a lot in a hundred years. This can be proven by seeing various layers of thatch when stripping it off a roof. For example, if an extension was going on a roof, you would have to strip off a triangle right back to the original timbers, for the new frame to attach to. It is not uncommon to take 6 layers off a straw roof! The bottom layer could easily be 150 years old, and on each layer you can see how the thatcher worked.

However, there are slight changes from those days that can be applied now, which is where evolution comes in.

Up until the middle of the last century, a thatched house was a poor man’s house. Each village would have its own thatcher who would use whatever material was locally grown. However, due to the house owner not having much money, and the amount of thatched properties and thatchers around, the thatch would not last very long or look anything special. No wire netting was used, so there was nothing to stop wildlife being attracted to the roof.

Nowadays, a thatched cottage is a very desirable home, and that comes at a price. You would not be happy if you have just paid out thousands of pounds to see mice/rats/squirrals in your straw roof every morning with nothing to try and deter them. You would also want your roof looking nice so you could be proud to come home to what some people regard as a work of art. Sometimes, when I thatch a celtic roundhouse, or saxon hut, it has a more shaggy, uneven look to it, with the eaves all over the place, but you wouldn’t like that look on your home. Evolution has helped give the thatched cottage a chocolate box look that most people love.

Is evolution better though? Well, in some cases, yes. Take fixing the material to the rafters as an example. If you want to thatch the traditional way, you would stitch the material to the rafters with tarred cord. The master would thread the cord through the thatch with the help of a needle and the apprentice would be inside to take it and thread it back. With new building regulations on fire protection this would be impossible on a new build today. This evolved to the thatcer using a hazel sway over the material and using dutch crooks, also known as spikes, hammered into the rafters clamping the hazel down. The problem with this is, over time, the hazel could break, causing the thatch to slip. Today, a steel sway is used instead of the hazel rod. This will not break like hazel has been known to, and can get the thatch a lot tighter than stitching.

I could be pedantic and go on about only using heavy wooden pole ladders instead of the aluminium trade ladders we have today, or going to work on a horse and cart instead of you car.

On the other hand, a lot of what the thatcher does relies upon tradition. The preparation of straw has not changed one bit (discounting the fairly recently introduced wheat reed). The finished look of the coat work has not changed. Tapping reed into place with a leggett is the same as it always has been. The core work of what we do is, undoubtably, traditional. No machine can replicate a thatched look.

The truth is, no thatcher is completely traditional. Evolution has helped the thatched cottage become longer lasting, and better looking, than ever before. However, without the knowledge of our forefathers we wouldn’t have a clue where to start.

Thatching – the traditional craft that has evolved just enough.

The future of the Shelley thatching family.

After over 200 years, and at least 6 generations (there are no records further back), what does the future hold for this established thatching family tradition? Well, Paul – my cousin – has 3 sons that may carry on the family name in the industry, and today I am proud to announce my fisrt son.

Samuel Robert Shelley, born 2nd February 2015 at a whopping 9lb 5oz may one day join his father at the top of a newly thatched roof, and no one would be happier than me.

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How much does it cost to thatch a roof?

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The answer is….a lot more than in 1969!

This is an estimate that a customer showed me that was written by my Grandad – dated July 1969 –  showing a cost of £285 to rethatch a roof. The same roof would cost around £10,000 today.

This also shows that you don’t need pages of waffle when giving an estimate. You can’t get much simpler than saying “to thatch cottage with wheat straw and cover with wire netting 3/4 X 20g”, which is basically what any thatcher does, and giving a price.

The Great British Weather

Customers often ask me “do you work all year?” or “what do you do in the winter?”. My answers are “yes”, and “I get wet and cold”.

Thatching can be done all year round, but in some exteme weather you have no choice but to stop. When there are a few inches of snow on the roof, you just have to clear it off first before you can do anything. In fact, the most dangerous thing about snow can be getting to and from work, rather than the work itself – especially down those country lanes!

When it is raining heavily and it looks like it’s in for the day, you are better off gpoing home and catching up on paperwork. However, when it isn’t too heavy you just get on with things. If you go home every time there is a small bit of rain, you should change jobs! When using straw, you have to wet it first anyway, so it doesn’t affect it too much. With reed you have to be more careful.

The most dangerous weather is high winds. It can look like a nice day from inside an office, but when the wind is really strong it just isn’t worth chancing it.

During the summer people will often say “you have a lovely job”. But no one says that in the winter.

Ladders on thatch

When someone other than a thatcher needs to get onto the thatch to do some work, it can cause damage to the thatch. Window cleaners are a prime example of someone not knowing how to position a ladder on the roof to carry out their work.

The first rule is to keep off the ridge and aprons (the ridge underneath a window). When a ridge is new it is fine to put a ladder on it, but a few years down the line the wood work becomes brittle and any pressure will just snap it. Also, if a ladder is digging into the cut of the pattern it can ruin the look of a ridge.

All ladders should lay flush with the coat work. This means keep them at the same angle as the thatch. If the ladders are at a different angle then the top will dig in and leave a dent in the wire netting, or worse still, leave a dent in the thatch.

If you use multi layered ladders then you should turn the ladder around so that the top layer is closest to the thatch. This stops the top of the ladder underneath digging in.