Pre Historycave dwelling
Prehistoric people lived in caves which had conveniently been created by a natural process. They were easy to defend and kept the occupants warm and dry. The down side was that they had to live where the caves were!
Stone Agegrass and bracken thatch
The natural progression was a thatched hut. 'Thatch' meant any covering of vegetation laid in such a way as to keep out the rain. Nomadic people used bracken, heather, wild grasses and anything else which worked.
The Middle Agesthe first straw thatches
As communities became more settled and began growing crops the stalks of cereal types, rye, oats and later wheat, were the obvious choice of roof material. Wheat straw, the natural by-product of each year's harvest, became the standard cheap method of covering roofs for centuries, especially in rural areas. This has continued in many parts of the British Isles; where wheat was grown, thatching remained the principal roofing method.
Victorian Timesthe "poor man's choice"
But not everywhere. In Wales and the north of England slate became available and replaced thatch since these areas are not big wheat producers. Later, together with clay tiles in the south east, slates were easily transported by canal and then by rail to become the main materials for the great building projects of the Victorian Age.
Thatch became the poor man's roof!
The Victorians used thatch on faux rural follies but the general trend was not only to build new houses with tile and slate but to remove the thatch from existing properties.
The 1940scombine harvesters signal the end?
This trend was accelerated beyond all expectation by the invention of the combine harvester in America in about 1940. These machines chop up the wheat straw rendering it useless as a thatching material and throughout the 1950's British farmers switched in their thousands to this easier, labour saving method of harvesting the wheat crop. During this period thousands of thatched properties in England were stripped and tiled because of the lack of thatching straw.
The 1960sreed thatching - the new era?
As recently as 1968 the roofs of thatched cottages in the centre of Stratford upon Avon were replaced with tiles in the rush for 'modernisation'. The brakes were eventually applied in the early 1970s as local authority conservation departments reversed their policy to one of encouraging and offering grant aid for re-thatching where appropriate. Now county councils such as Dorset actively promote the thatching of new-build property.
Meanwhile the great majority of old thatched properties are listed buildings so preserving their status and thus stabilising the overall number.
The 21st Centuryfarmers specialise in thatch straw
The farmers and growers who now supply thatching straw and combed wheat reed have to cut the wheat with 'pre-combine harvester' machinery. This means cutting the wheat with a reaper binder which cuts and ties the wheat in sheaves with the grain still in the ear. This has to be done before the grain is ripe to avoid the machinery knocking out all the grain on the ground! The sheaves are then stooked for two weeks whilst the grain ripens. The sheaves are then hauled in and passed through a Devon reed comber which threshes out the grain and combs out the weeds and leaf before the whole, straight stalks are re-trussed to produce bundles of combed wheat reed. This process is both labour intensive and weather dependent; one can see why farmers took to the combine harvester!
Together with the length of time it takes to thatch a roof the result of all this is that thatching has been transformed from the poor man's roof to the roof of choice. It would definitely be cheaper to live in a cave!
Todaythe roof of choice
Thanks to master thatchers like Jem Raison, beautiful thatched cottages have become the trademark feature of the quintessential English village and no picture postcard is complete without one. Long may this tradition continue!
Image © BBC