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CHRIS WOOD
Taking sides in the thatching controversy
Thatch has a promising future as the most sustainable of roofing materials, but its users
disagree about the lessons of its history.
There can be no more ecologically sound and
sustainable building material than thatch, at least in
theory. Traditionally, it was grown with only the use of
natural fertilisers and then harvested, prepared and
fixed on to roofs and ricks by local thatchers. This
picture has of course changed, notably since the
Second World War and the issue of materials has
become particularly vexed. The problem for local
authorities is how to get reliable information on
growers and advice on technical issues, but this is
about to change.
English Heritage’s research into the history of
thatching1 shows a tradition based mainly on straw,
with water reed being confined to estuarine areas.
Great dexterity was shown with the use of whatever
was grown, with all sorts of different materials being
used2, but all of it involved the minimum use of
transport. Nowadays, of course, even traditional straw
has to travel distances, as there are few farmers or
growers who produce the materials ostensibly for
thatching, despite it being relatively lucrative.
Experienced thatchers often grow their own straw or
use the same farmers, and they tend to have strong
preferences for particular types of wheat. Older strains
such as Squareheads Master, Rampton Rivet and
Little Joss are still used but currently it is illegal to
trade in seeds that are no longer on the National Seeds
List. Currently only two types of wheat are on the list:
Mans Huntsman and Mans Widgeon. When the
former was threatened with delisting last year, English
Heritage provided temporary financial support to
ensure its immediate continued survival, but it remains
threatened.
There is a conflict between, one the one hand, those
wanting to see a return to the use of the traditional
pattern of locally produced straw and the retention of
the styles of thatching that these materials dictated
and, on the other, those who dispute some of the
history of thatching and regard the ‘tradition’ as being
one in which the thatcher is free to use whichever
material or style they or their client wants. Greater
reliability, availability and longevity are claimed for
imported water reed by its supporters, with the result
that more and more is imported. The imports are
mainly from Eastern Europe, along with veldt grass
from as far away as South Africa.
One of the biggest problems is vouchsafing the
quality of an organic material. Premature degradation
has been regularly cited in the past, and has affected
both straw and reed. This was not such a problem
when patch repairs were more prevalent and regular
but nowadays, with most jobs involving a complete
rethatching, this can be very expensive. So far a
scientifically valid approach to testing the quality of
thatching straw or reed has not been devised. Perhaps
the best suggestion to date is to provide some system
which records provenance, whereby the grower
accurately records details such as the time the seed was
sown, the type of soil and the amount of nitrogen
added. Such a system would need to be impartially
administered. Although it would not guarantee quality,
it would at least give the thatcher and owner some
comfort about the product.
Longevity of thatch continues to be fiercely argued.
Examples of long straw, combed wheat reed and water
reed lasting over 50 years are well known. Much
depends on the quality of the product and its growing
regime, the ability of the thatcher, and the location and
siting of the roof. Experienced growers cite examples
of inspecting a failed thatch after less than ten years
and then finding another roof, rethatched by a
different thatcher using straw from the same field, in
Growing trials of old
English wheat varieties
at Reading University.
Photo by John Letts


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CONTEXT 73 : MARCH 2002

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