Building practices of ancient Britain ran to lightweight, irregular materials, such as wattle and daub walls, and cruck beams. These walls were not capable of taking very much weight, and thatch was by far the lightest weight material available.Thatched buildings appear in almost every county in the United Kingdom although the West Country - Cornwall, Devon and Dorset have probably the highest number of buildings which still retain a thatched roof.Materials used in thatch buildings were limited to whatever was available locally. Materials such as broom, sedge, sallow, flax, grass, and straw are all used. The most common is wheat straw in the south of England, and reeds in East Anglia. Norfolk reed is especially prized by thatchers, although in northern England and Scotland heather was frequently used.With the large reed beds in East Anglia and it's longer life, reed has become the more common material for thatch, though long-straw thatching is still done. Rye, Straw or sedge grass is used for capping the ridges of all thatched buildings as it is more flexible than reed.Although thatch was primarily used by the poor, occasionally great houses used this most common of materials. In 1300 the great Norman castle at Pevensey in Sussex bought up 6 acres of rushes to roof the hall and chambers. Much later, in the late 18th century thatched cottages became an extremely popular theme with painters, who tried to portray a romantic view of Britain.The growing railway network in the Victorian era meant that cheap slate from Wales became easily available all over Britain. Agricultural machinery, particularly the combine harvester, had the unfortunate effect of making wheat straw unusable for thatching. This made Norfolk reed all the more prized, and now the latter material is grown specifically for use in thatching.
Thatching a roof.
First the thatch is tied in bundles, then laid in an under layer on the roof beams and pegged in place with rods made of hazel or withy.Thatching starts at the eves and works in rows up to the ridge. The bundles of reed are held in place under steel rods (sways) held in place by iron hooks fixed to the rafters.An upper layer is then laid over the first, and a final reinforcing layer added along the ridge line. The straw is held in place with strips of split hazel fixed with broaches, again of split hazel. . The bundles are pushed up into place by hand and then finished off with a leggat, a large square ridged tool, which is used to both pack the reed tighter and finish off the shape of the roof.It is at the ridge line that the individual thatcher leaves his personal "signature", a decorative feature, a 'corn dolly' is constructed which marks the job as his alone. The corn dolly was believed to ward off evil spirits and to ensure a good harvest. The final layer is held in place with a decorative pattern of split hazel, then the edge is trimmed to a traditional pattern with an eaves knife or shears.Although thatching, like many rural crafts has declined, many property owners today still keep their cottages thatched, both for aesthetic reasons and for value in the property market. The roof is however, vulnerable to attack from birds and rodents, so the last major job on a modern thatch is to cover the entire roof with wire netting.Many inns in the UK retain a thatched roof and nothing is much more picturesque than a hairy hostelry !
The traditional British craft of thatching is the use of straw or grasses as a building material. Using thatch for roofing goes back as far as the Bronze Age in Britain. At Shearplace Hall in Dorset there are remains of a round hut that shows signs of thatching. Thatched cottages and farm buildings were the norm in rural Britain for a millennium or more.