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It's the essential component of the chocolate box cottage. Maria Graham-Martin explains everything you will ever need to know about thatched roofs and the people who create them.

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With the exception of a 'lovely cup of tea' or a bowl of strawberries and cream, there is almost nothing more quintessentially English than a 'chocolate box' cottage. This traditional image of rural life generally features lattice windows and roses round the door, but its real crowning glory is a beautiful thatched roof.



Here in the Cotswolds, we are lucky enough to boast many such visions, including, on our doorstep, one of the most notable thatched houses in the country, if not the world - Anna Hathaway's cottage in Shottery, near Stratford Upon Avon where, according to the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, the vista of the house and garden has been described as the most romantic view in England.



Thatching is one of the oldest surviving building crafts and was our most common roof covering until the end of the 19th century (its use can be traced back to the Bronze Age). Today, it remains a viable, sustainable solution for rural buildings.



There are now around 60,000 thatched properties in Britain, three quarters of which are listed, and the number of thatched properties in the region will certainly not decrease, as thatched cottages continue to be popular into the 21st century among those who aspire to own a traditional country home. If anything, they are set to increase and some house builders are meeting the demand for new homes with thatched roofs. These developments provide a crossover between thatch and newly built property - combining the charm of thatch, with the layout and low maintenance issues of a modern home. The reintroduction of thatch buildings makes commercial sense from both environmental and aesthetic points of view.



There still exist, however, many misconceptions among potential buyers as to the practicalities and financial aspects of owning a thatch property. For example, there is often an unfounded worry about fire risks (statistically, homes with thatched roofs are no more likely to catch fire than those with conventional roofs) and many people have a mis-placed notion they are disproportionately expensive to insure.


- 1 -


However, if you have succumbed to the lure of life under thatch, whether in an old house or new, or if you are thinking of buying a property with a thatched roof, you will be well rewarded. Thatched homes generally stay warm in the winter and cool in the summer, and thatch also reduces external noise. They also retain their value, often better than more conventional dwellings, and if you are prepared to give it the care and attention it needs, it will never lose its old world rustic beauty.



A stitch in time


Thatch is usually of long straw, combed wheat reed or water reed, depending on the regional building tradition (but over the years alternatives have included heather, rushes and even wood chips and potato stems). Here in the Cotswolds, most thatched roofs are of the wheat reed variety. The material demands a high degree of craftsmanship and, when planning to repair or re-thatch your roof, the advice of a local thatcher of proven ability is essential.



Dan Quartermain, a Master Thatcher from Little Compton, has been thatching in the Cotswolds region for over 22 years, and will be part of a two company team to undertake the re-thatch of Anne Hathaway's cottage in September 2008. Craftsmen such as Dan can offer much guidance for owners, and potential owners, of thatched properties in the area.



Dan's advice for finding a reliable thatcher includes contacting your local Master Thatchers Association. This organization is committed to maintaining the standards of the craft and it will be happy to supply you with a list of thatchers who adhere to a strict criteria demanded by the association. He also suggests obtaining more than one estimate, as well as references from customers of your chosen thatcher, and looking at houses they have thatched. Bear in mind that good workmanship, together with the perpetuation of regional characteristics in both style and the choice of materials, are particularly important in an old building. A good thatcher often gets booked for up to a year in advance, so make sure you start your search early.



If you are buying a thatched house you should always ask the previous owner for information about when it was last thatched and re-ridged. Dan explains: "A thatched roof (like any other roof covering) needs periodic maintenance, including patching and small repairs, that will help extend its life expectancy. A new thatch should last up to 35 years, depending on the type and quality of materials used, the pitch and design of the roof (the steeper the roof, the longer it generally lasts, as it doesn't retain water for as long as a shallow roof) local climate, and the position of the roof with regards to exposure of the elements."


- 2 -


According to Dan, there are several signs that your thatch may need attention. For example, if fixings are exposed all over the roof, it indicates that the thatch is either nearing or at the end of its life, and if gullies are appearing (deep vertical patches of rot) these will require attention. Dark wet patches on the eaves close to the wall indicate the thatch is leaking and if the roof is covered in heavy moss, it could mean that the thatch is unable to breath and is therefore unable to dry out properly.



Dan explains that it is not usually necessary to dismantle and re-cover the entire roof and it is indeed traditional and common practice to fit wheat reed and long straw over an existing coat of thatch. Patch repairs and overlays are also both possible without wholesale stripping, depending on the condition of the roof (don't worry if these look patchy, they will soon blend in).



The ridge is the final protective covering along the top of the roof, its purpose being two-fold - to conceal the last fixing rod and to provide an attractive finish to the roof. There are two types of ridge; the first is a simple and more traditional flush ridge, many of which feature a cross-stitched effect made with split hazel or willow clamped to the ridge by spars (many examples of this can be seen in older photographs of cottages). The second, is the block cut ridge, the pattern of which stands out from the plane of the roof, and is largely a latter 20th century phenomenon. Generally the simplest ridge patterns are best suited to old cottages.



Maintenance on an average size home will usually include replacing the ridge every 10 - 15 years, so re-ridging will be required several times during the lifespan of a thatch, depending on the type, pitch, location and other factors. As the thickness of thatch decreases over the years as the surface is gradually eroded, one of the signs that the ridge may be near the end of its life is if it has 'sunk', exposing a lot of galvanized wire.



As safe as (thatched) houses...


Proportionally, thatched property fires are no more likely than conventional homes, and when they do burn, it is slowly, so fatalities are rare. To narrow the risks of fire, Dan shares a few 'golden rules' to keep you and your home safe.






- 3 -


As with any property, thatched or not, locating smoke alarms (and checking the batteries regularly) and fire extinguishers throughout the property is an essential precaution, and they could prove potential life-savers. Most fires are chimney related, so keep yours swept and lined if it is in use. Have it checked to ensure that the brick or stone work is in good condition and there are no holes which could leak hot gases, especially where it passes through the thatch. Also, make sure that the top of the stack is at least five feet above the thatch, allowing sparks to escape and die out before they have a chance to settle on the roof.



Modern multi-fuel stoves can make flue temperatures soar, igniting thatch through the chimney, so keep an eye on the flue temperature by fitting a flue thermometer, and try not to burn wet or unseasoned wood as this will leave greater deposits in the flue.



The Electrical wires in the roof space should be checked regularly (especially if you have mice or other vermin) and your electricity provider will often conduct a free visual check for you. Loft hatches should be at least 92xm x 62cm wide to allow access for fire fighters.



Remember, remember


Dan explains that although the majority of thatch fires begin inside the home, it important not to overlook other potential fire risks outside the property. He says:"If you light a garden fire, make sure you position it as far away from your house as possible, checking the direction and strength of the wind. Avoid doing this in the height of summer when the environment is very dry and make sure you have an outside water supply with a hose pipe attached - this could avert disaster if sparks did land on the roof."



It is also wise to be extra vigilant around 5 November and while the chances of a stray rocket landing on your thatch is small, check your roof frequently if fireworks are going off in the vicinity. It is also worth reminding neighbours of the risk that bonfires and fireworks pose to your roof.









- 4 -


Uninvited guests


You may not be the only ones to enjoy the warmth and beauty of your thatch, as nesting birds, mice or squirrels may decide to set up homes in yours!



If you suspect your roof is playing host to uninvited guests, have a good look at your thatch from the outside. If pieces of your thatch are protruding in loose clumps, with holes above, it could indicate that you and your family are not the only inhabitants. Wire netting can prevent birds and vermin stealing straw for their nests, but birds are particularly fond of nesting under eaves - particularly if the thatch has not been properly fixed in place or has become loose - so call in a thatcher before the birds start looking for nesting sites in early spring. You can encourage birds to nest in your garden, rather than your roof, by providing a variety of nest boxes around your property.



National treasures


Thatched houses form an important part of village cultural heritage and, according to the National Society of Master Thatchers, probably add up to a national capital asset of approximately 12.5 billion. A thatched property is truly a jewel in the country's crown that should be nurtured and protected because one thing is for sure - thatch is here to stay.



-


USEFUL NUMBERS:



Dan Quartermain Master Thatcher


Telephone: 01608 674116



Stuart Viggers Master Thatcher


Telephone:01295 709030



Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, Warwickshire & Worcestershire Master Thatchers Association


Committed to maintaining the high standard of thatching throughout the area. Membership is gained by the judgment of the applicants peers. Can provide a list of thatchers in your area.


Telephone: Gem Raison, Secretary, 01608 664368


E Mail: gemraison@hotmail.com



Thatched Owners Group


Provides information, advice and specialist insurance for thatched property owners. Offers lifelong membership for 95.00.


- 5 -


Thatched News is a magazine for the Thatched Owners Group and is published three times a year. Gives practical help and advice to thatched property owners.


Telephone: 01406 3300007


Website: www.thatched-group.com


E Mail: info@thatched-group.com



The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB)


Since its foundation, 125 years ago, the SPAB has been committed to maintenance matters in line with William Morris's exhortation to "stave off decay by daily care."


SPAB produces The Care and Repair of Thatched Roofs guide (4.00 including post and packaging. They are also running a The Long Straw Thatch workshop on 7 September 2007, cost 100 suitable for home owners or anyone interested in learning more about thatching.


Technical advice line: 020 7456 0916 (Monday, Tuesday and Friday)


Website: www.spab.org.uk


E Mail: info@spab.org.uk



National Society of Master Thatchers (NSMT)


NSMT has thatching members throughout England and Wales that have to pass vetting procedures. A register of thatchers can be accessed via their web site.


Telephone: 01844 281208


Website: www.nsmtltd.co.uk



The Weald and Downland Open Air Museum


The museum, situated in Chichester, West Sussex, is running a one day course in thatch, including lectures and demonstrations by a Master Thatcher. 95 per day.


Telephone: 01243 811363


Website: www.wealddown.co.uk


E Mail: courses@wealddown.co.uk



Training


Information on the training required to become a thatcher can be found at www.learndirect-advice.co.uk.



Training to become a thatcher involves participation in an NVQ in Roofing Occupations (Thatching) at levels 2 and 3. For details, contact Herefordshire College of Technology.


Telephone: 01432 365314



Apprenticeships may be available for those under the age of 24. In England, these are currently Apprenticeships (level 2) and Advanced Apprenticeships (level 3). Visit www.apprenticeships.org.uk.



Books


The Complete Guide to Living with Thatch by Michael Billett


Thatching: A Handbook by Nicolas Hall


How to Thatch a Small Roof: A Step by Step Illustrated Guide By a Master Thatcher of 40 years


Thatch and Thatching, by Jacqueline Fearn














With the exception of a 'lovely cup of tea' or a bowl of strawberries and cream, there is almost nothing more quintessentially English than a 'chocolate box' cottage. This traditional image of rural life generally features lattice windows and roses round the door, but its real crowning glory is a beautiful thatched roof.



Here in the Cotswolds, we are lucky enough to boast many such visions, including, on our doorstep, one of the most notable thatched houses in the country, if not the world - Anna Hathaway's cottage in Shottery, near Stratford Upon Avon where, according to the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, the vista of the house and garden has been described as the most romantic view in England.



Thatching is one of the oldest surviving building crafts and was our most common roof covering until the end of the 19th century (its use can be traced back to the Bronze Age). Today, it remains a viable, sustainable solution for rural buildings.



There are now around 60,000 thatched properties in Britain, three quarters of which are listed, and the number of thatched properties in the region will certainly not decrease, as thatched cottages continue to be popular into the 21st century among those who aspire to own a traditional country home. If anything, they are set to increase and some house builders are meeting the demand for new homes with thatched roofs. These developments provide a crossover between thatch and newly built property - combining the charm of thatch, with the layout and low maintenance issues of a modern home. The reintroduction of thatch buildings makes commercial sense from both environmental and aesthetic points of view.



There still exist, however, many misconceptions among potential buyers as to the practicalities and financial aspects of owning a thatch property. For example, there is often an unfounded worry about fire risks (statistically, homes with thatched roofs are no more likely to catch fire than those with conventional roofs) and many people have a mis-placed notion they are disproportionately expensive to insure.


- 1 -


However, if you have succumbed to the lure of life under thatch, whether in an old house or new, or if you are thinking of buying a property with a thatched roof, you will be well rewarded. Thatched homes generally stay warm in the winter and cool in the summer, and thatch also reduces external noise. They also retain their value, often better than more conventional dwellings, and if you are prepared to give it the care and attention it needs, it will never lose its old world rustic beauty.



A stitch in time


Thatch is usually of long straw, combed wheat reed or water reed, depending on the regional building tradition (but over the years alternatives have included heather, rushes and even wood chips and potato stems). Here in the Cotswolds, most thatched roofs are of the wheat reed variety. The material demands a high degree of craftsmanship and, when planning to repair or re-thatch your roof, the advice of a local thatcher of proven ability is essential.



Dan Quartermain, a Master Thatcher from Little Compton, has been thatching in the Cotswolds region for over 22 years, and will be part of a two company team to undertake the re-thatch of Anne Hathaway's cottage in September 2008. Craftsmen such as Dan can offer much guidance for owners, and potential owners, of thatched properties in the area.



Dan's advice for finding a reliable thatcher includes contacting your local Master Thatchers Association. This organization is committed to maintaining the standards of the craft and it will be happy to supply you with a list of thatchers who adhere to a strict criteria demanded by the association. He also suggests obtaining more than one estimate, as well as references from customers of your chosen thatcher, and looking at houses they have thatched. Bear in mind that good workmanship, together with the perpetuation of regional characteristics in both style and the choice of materials, are particularly important in an old building. A good thatcher often gets booked for up to a year in advance, so make sure you start your search early.



If you are buying a thatched house you should always ask the previous owner for information about when it was last thatched and re-ridged. Dan explains: "A thatched roof (like any other roof covering) needs periodic maintenance, including patching and small repairs, that will help extend its life expectancy. A new thatch should last up to 35 years, depending on the type and quality of materials used, the pitch and design of the roof (the steeper the roof, the longer it generally lasts, as it doesn't retain water for as long as a shallow roof) local climate, and the position of the roof with regards to exposure of the elements."


- 2 -


According to Dan, there are several signs that your thatch may need attention. For example, if fixings are exposed all over the roof, it indicates that the thatch is either nearing or at the end of its life, and if gullies are appearing (deep vertical patches of rot) these will require attention. Dark wet patches on the eaves close to the wall indicate the thatch is leaking and if the roof is covered in heavy moss, it could mean that the thatch is unable to breath and is therefore unable to dry out properly.



Dan explains that it is not usually necessary to dismantle and re-cover the entire roof and it is indeed traditional and common practice to fit wheat reed and long straw over an existing coat of thatch. Patch repairs and overlays are also both possible without wholesale stripping, depending on the condition of the roof (don't worry if these look patchy, they will soon blend in).



The ridge is the final protective covering along the top of the roof, its purpose being two-fold - to conceal the last fixing rod and to provide an attractive finish to the roof. There are two types of ridge; the first is a simple and more traditional flush ridge, many of which feature a cross-stitched effect made with split hazel or willow clamped to the ridge by spars (many examples of this can be seen in older photographs of cottages). The second, is the block cut ridge, the pattern of which stands out from the plane of the roof, and is largely a latter 20th century phenomenon. Generally the simplest ridge patterns are best suited to old cottages.



Maintenance on an average size home will usually include replacing the ridge every 10 - 15 years, so re-ridging will be required several times during the lifespan of a thatch, depending on the type, pitch, location and other factors. As the thickness of thatch decreases over the years as the surface is gradually eroded, one of the signs that the ridge may be near the end of its life is if it has 'sunk', exposing a lot of galvanized wire.



As safe as (thatched) houses...


Proportionally, thatched property fires are no more likely than conventional homes, and when they do burn, it is slowly, so fatalities are rare. To narrow the risks of fire, Dan shares a few 'golden rules' to keep you and your home safe.






- 3 -


As with any property, thatched or not, locating smoke alarms (and checking the batteries regularly) and fire extinguishers throughout the property is an essential precaution, and they could prove potential life-savers. Most fires are chimney related, so keep yours swept and lined if it is in use. Have it checked to ensure that the brick or stone work is in good condition and there are no holes which could leak hot gases, especially where it passes through the thatch. Also, make sure that the top of the stack is at least five feet above the thatch, allowing sparks to escape and die out before they have a chance to settle on the roof.



Modern multi-fuel stoves can make flue temperatures soar, igniting thatch through the chimney, so keep an eye on the flue temperature by fitting a flue thermometer, and try not to burn wet or unseasoned wood as this will leave greater deposits in the flue.



The Electrical wires in the roof space should be checked regularly (especially if you have mice or other vermin) and your electricity provider will often conduct a free visual check for you. Loft hatches should be at least 92xm x 62cm wide to allow access for fire fighters.



Remember, remember


Dan explains that although the majority of thatch fires begin inside the home, it important not to overlook other potential fire risks outside the property. He says:"If you light a garden fire, make sure you position it as far away from your house as possible, checking the direction and strength of the wind. Avoid doing this in the height of summer when the environment is very dry and make sure you have an outside water supply with a hose pipe attached - this could avert disaster if sparks did land on the roof."



It is also wise to be extra vigilant around 5 November and while the chances of a stray rocket landing on your thatch is small, check your roof frequently if fireworks are going off in the vicinity. It is also worth reminding neighbours of the risk that bonfires and fireworks pose to your roof.









- 4 -


Uninvited guests


You may not be the only ones to enjoy the warmth and beauty of your thatch, as nesting birds, mice or squirrels may decide to set up homes in yours!



If you suspect your roof is playing host to uninvited guests, have a good look at your thatch from the outside. If pieces of your thatch are protruding in loose clumps, with holes above, it could indicate that you and your family are not the only inhabitants. Wire netting can prevent birds and vermin stealing straw for their nests, but birds are particularly fond of nesting under eaves - particularly if the thatch has not been properly fixed in place or has become loose - so call in a thatcher before the birds start looking for nesting sites in early spring. You can encourage birds to nest in your garden, rather than your roof, by providing a variety of nest boxes around your property.



National treasures


Thatched houses form an important part of village cultural heritage and, according to the National Society of Master Thatchers, probably add up to a national capital asset of approximately 12.5 billion. A thatched property is truly a jewel in the country's crown that should be nurtured and protected because one thing is for sure - thatch is here to stay.



-


USEFUL NUMBERS:



Dan Quartermain Master Thatcher


Telephone: 01608 674116



Stuart Viggers Master Thatcher


Telephone:01295 709030



Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, Warwickshire & Worcestershire Master Thatchers Association


Committed to maintaining the high standard of thatching throughout the area. Membership is gained by the judgment of the applicants peers. Can provide a list of thatchers in your area.


Telephone: Gem Raison, Secretary, 01608 664368


E Mail: gemraison@hotmail.com



Thatched Owners Group


Provides information, advice and specialist insurance for thatched property owners. Offers lifelong membership for 95.00.


- 5 -


Thatched News is a magazine for the Thatched Owners Group and is published three times a year. Gives practical help and advice to thatched property owners.


Telephone: 01406 3300007


Website: www.thatched-group.com


E Mail: info@thatched-group.com



The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB)


Since its foundation, 125 years ago, the SPAB has been committed to maintenance matters in line with William Morris's exhortation to "stave off decay by daily care."


SPAB produces The Care and Repair of Thatched Roofs guide (4.00 including post and packaging. They are also running a The Long Straw Thatch workshop on 7 September 2007, cost 100 suitable for home owners or anyone interested in learning more about thatching.


Technical advice line: 020 7456 0916 (Monday, Tuesday and Friday)


Website: www.spab.org.uk


E Mail: info@spab.org.uk



National Society of Master Thatchers (NSMT)


NSMT has thatching members throughout England and Wales that have to pass vetting procedures. A register of thatchers can be accessed via their web site.


Telephone: 01844 281208


Website: www.nsmtltd.co.uk



The Weald and Downland Open Air Museum


The museum, situated in Chichester, West Sussex, is running a one day course in thatch, including lectures and demonstrations by a Master Thatcher. 95 per day.


Telephone: 01243 811363


Website: www.wealddown.co.uk


E Mail: courses@wealddown.co.uk



Training


Information on the training required to become a thatcher can be found at www.learndirect-advice.co.uk.



Training to become a thatcher involves participation in an NVQ in Roofing Occupations (Thatching) at levels 2 and 3. For details, contact Herefordshire College of Technology.


Telephone: 01432 365314



Apprenticeships may be available for those under the age of 24. In England, these are currently Apprenticeships (level 2) and Advanced Apprenticeships (level 3). Visit www.apprenticeships.org.uk.



Books


The Complete Guide to Living with Thatch by Michael Billett


Thatching: A Handbook by Nicolas Hall


How to Thatch a Small Roof: A Step by Step Illustrated Guide By a Master Thatcher of 40 years


Thatch and Thatching, by Jacqueline Fearn



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