Every traditional southern English village has at least some houses with thatched roofs, and they really add to its beauty. Conjuring up images of soft, green countryside, flowers swaying in a gentle breeze, and ducks quacking by the village green, thatching goes right to the heart of this ‘picture postcard’ world. These days, it’s very desirable to own a thatched cottage and is a sign of wealth and exclusivity. We British love tradition, and this about as pure a connection you can get with the past.
This wasn’t always the case though. Until around one hundred and fifty years ago, having a thatched roof on your house was completely normal, because it was the only roofing material available. Then the development of canals meant that slate could be moved around the country far more easily, and many houses began to be built with Welsh slate roofs. By the early twentieth century, living in a cottage with a thatched roof had become a sign of poverty!
Thatching has historically been very popular in Europe, but because Britain has preserved so much of its heritage, thatched roofs are a more common sight here than in many other countries. Even today though, it remains surprisingly practical and there are over 1,000 thatchers who practice this ancient art. Thatch is made from natural reed and other plants which, when cut and dried, make a waterproof roofing material. When bundled together tightly using special techniques, it creates a roof thickness of around 30cm that keeps out the weather, while still looking good. It is strong too, as the thatch material is held in place with wooden pegs fixed to the existing old thatch or directly to the roof timbers by means of steel spikes and cross rods.
Thatching expert Keith Quantrill says this type of roof helps houses to stay cool in summer and warm in winter, and also acts as highly effective sound insulation material. In Britain, most thatch material comes from wheat straw, ideally from older wheat varieties because their tall stems are strong and robust. This can be grown locally, and doesn’t need to be transported from one end of the country to another, so it is good for the environment too. The downside is that every thirty or so years, you need to replace it – and it isn’t cheap at up to £30,000.
You’ll find thatched cottages is almost in every village in southern England; there are some further north but the colder and wetter weather means that many house owners have moved to stone roofs which withstand the rain better. If you want to enjoy that ‘picture postcard’ look, then the Cotswolds – just an hour and a half from London – is a great area to visit. Just don’t forget your camera.