A thatched cottage is a quintessential symbol of British village life, yet as we discover, this traditional craft is far from just a heritage concern
No image of an archetypal English village is complete without a thatched cottage or two. In fact, a straw topped dwelling is as much a part of the rural idyll as rolling fields, tolling church bells and duck ponds on the village green.
A thatched roof is not only an elegant solution to topping a beautiful old cottage, but also a communion between such a building and the rural landscape in which it invariably inhabits. By crowning a house with locally grown reeds or straw, a connection is explicitly drawn between that man-made structure and the natural world that surrounds it.
Were they more commonplace in the US, a thatch would surely be the epitome of what the great American architect Frank Lloyd Wright called “organic architecture”, a philosophy promoting a harmonious relationship between human dwellings and the natural world.
However, Lloyd Wright coined the famous phrase in 1939 and thatched cottages have been a feature of the British landscape, and the south of England in particular, since at least the Bronze Age. The process evolved during the Roman occupation of Britain from AD43 onwards, as the development of basic agricultural tools made it easier for locals to harvest cereal crops for thatch (the Romans themselves insisted on clay tiles). Archaeological excavations of various sites at which Vikings settled in Northern Britain unearthed many shaped stones that are thought to have weighed down ropes used in the thatching of roofs, suggesting the craft continued during the early Middle Ages. William Shakespeare has a connection to two of Britain’s most famous thatched properties.
Anne Hathaway’s Cottage in the Warwickshire village of Shottery was the childhood home of Shakespeare’s wife and the place in which the couple later courted. Anne was born in the former farmhouse in 1556, a time when thatched roofs were banned in the nearby town of Stratford-upon-Avon for fear of fire risks, but this particular building lay just outside the area of jurisdiction.
Since the cottage was built in 1463, a second floor was added and the original long straw thatch has been replaced and restyled many times. With its proximity to Shakespeare’s own birthplace, Anne Hathaway’s Cottage remains perhaps Britain’s most popular thatched property, the combed wheat reed-topped structure enjoying the attentions of the village’s two million visitors each year. Meanwhile, the roof of the Shakespeare’s Globe, opened in 1997 on London’s Bankside, was based on the original 1599 Globe Theatre, a reed-thatched structure in which many of the Bard’s plays, including Hamlet and Macbeth, were first performed. While the modern amphitheatre has the appearance of a true thatch, there is actually a fully fire-retardant lining underneath. (There has been a law against thatched buildings in London ever since the Great Fire in 1666).
Another of Britain’s greatest writers, William Blake, lived in a thatched cottage in the village of Felpham from 1800 to 1803, during which time he began several of his greatest poems, including the hymnal Jerusalem.
The cottage, one of the poet’s only two surviving homes, was bought by the Blake Cottage Trust in 2015 and plans are underway to convert it into a museum. By the 19th century, almost one million thatched properties dotted the British landscape, according to Sun Life and Royal Exchange insurance records. That number dwindled to less than 35,000 by 1960, but thatching has seen a resurgence in recent years thanks to private investment and planning controls. An English Heritage report estimated that about 24,000 listed buildings in England currently have thatched roofs.
Prized yet practical
It is easy to see why a thatched roof is so prized – think of them in terms of a hairstyle for a cottage; each one temporary, individual and indicative of the character contained within. Some are cropped neat and conditioner smooth, others a little unruly yet not without charms. Even the colour varieties are similar, from the light blonde of some ‘long straw’ roofs to the grey-brown of water reed and the dark roots of a smoke-blackened thatch.
While the colour is largely the result of locally available materials, many of the other characteristics of a thatched roof are dictated by more practical considerations. The steep roofs, for example, are purely a necessity so that rainwater runs off quickly – a 45-degree pitch is the minimum requirement, whereas 50 degrees is preferable. Likewise, the distinctive sweeping curve of thatch that sits over ‘eyebrow’ windows in the eaves of any house are largely designed for purpose rather than elegance. The distinctive personalities of various thatches mean that the creation and maintenance of them is a meticulous craft.
Steve Fowler, of Oxfordshire master thatchers Fowler & Sons, has been thatching roofs for more than 40 years. According to Steve, an average sized cottage can take around five weeks to re-thatch, while thoroughly learning the trade can take many years. “It depends on the individual,” he adds. “In a couple of years you can learn the basics and it takes another couple of years to get competent as each roof is different. You need to be able to apply what you have learnt to each individual roof.” The key to a good thatch, he says, is keeping the surface neat, tidy and level, while also ensuring the roof is able to breathe. “Thatch has a good insulation value in the winter and can also be nice and cool in the summer,” he says. “It’s a natural, green product.”
A brighter future
That final, perhaps surprising point is key. While thatched cottages will always have a certain nostalgic charm, they are not simply a period feature. “Thatch is not only part of the rural heritage of the UK, but also a very sustainable, renewable, biological material for new builds, so it can be part of the modern vernacular building as well,” says Marjorie Sanders, the president of the National Society of Master Thatchers. Demand for the society’s apprenticeship scheme is high and, as Marjorie notes in Thatches and Thatching, her 2012 book co-written by Roger Angold (and containing a foreword by HRH The Prince of Wales no less), more than 700 new thatched properties are built in Britain every year.
Nevertheless, Marjorie would like to see more developers consider thatching as a viable option.
While cost and ease are a factor, she believes the long-term benefits are greater, but a change in attitude and perception is required. “How much more difficult is it to forget the bottom line for a moment and think instead about the long-term sustainability of the building? This is
why thatch is so important. I’m not suggesting all buildings should be thatched, but the materials we use should be much kinder to the environment.”
So next time you take a trip through the English countryside and gaze longingly at a quaint thatched cottage, take extra comfort from the fact that this traditional craft is not only aesthetically pleasing, but also pointing the way to a brighter future.