An age-old dream – the thatched cottage
Tags: 'dwarfing genes', 'Suffolk pink', 1666, 1800s, 1997, 410 AD, 5 feet tall, 5 feet thick, a coat of 'Suffolk pink', a system of sprinklers, an ancient art, ancient ordinance, Angles, Anne Hathaway's cottage, beautiful thatched cottage, biological materials, Britain, Britannia, British Isles, British-produced TV, bull's blood, Celtic, cereal crop, Chicken wire, chimney, chimney maintenance, City of London, climate, climate and availability, close replica of the building of Shakespeare's time, coconut tree, coconut tree fronds, coloured 'wash', condition of the flue, Danelaw, dangerous hazard, Dark Ages, delight to the eye, diluted bull's blood, discourages birds from robbing it, dramas, England, erection of thatched buildings, excellent thatching material, exterior plaster, extremely desirable, films, finite life, fire hazards, fireplace, first discovered in the 1960s, flue liner, garden, gardens, grass, Great Britain, Great Fire of London, Great Hall, heather, homeowners, Jorvik, Jutes, Kedington, landscape, localized over-heating, maintains the integrity of the thatch, many forms of plant material, Mediaeval thatch, Middle Ages, modern wheat, municipal buildings, murders, national importance, naturally long stalks, nest material, New Globe Theatre, new layer, non-inflammable roofing, novelist, olden times, pink colour of the cottage, plant material, playwright, popular for roofing, prevalent strain, production of roof tiles, province of Britannia, reeds, Roman Legions, Romano-British, Romano-British peoples, Romans, roof tiles, Saxons, Shottery, Sir Denis Thatcher, slate industry, southern part of the British Isles, spark, stone roofing, Stratford-upon-Avon, Suffolk, swept every 3 to 6 months, temperate zones, thatch, thatched building, thatched buildings, thatched cottage, thatched cottages, thatched properties, thatched roof, Thatcher, Thatching, the flue, the sweep, the tropics, tiled roofs, Triticum aestivum, TV series, type of fuel, very expensive, village of Kedington, villas, well-preserved, Welsh, Welsh slate industry, wheat, wheat straw, William Shakespeare, York
You’ve seen them in countless films and British-produced TV series over the years. They lend character to dramas and a backdrop to the juiciest murders, the strangest goings-on that ever playwright or novelist can devise. Some of them are of national importance, and are well-preserved (along with their delightful gardens) – think Anne Hathaway’s cottage at Shottery, just outside Stratford-upon-Avon (although her husband was much more famous than she was!) Most of them are scattered around the landscape – the majority of survivors are in the southern part of the British Isles – some in better condition than others, all with fascinating stories to tell. They are the thatched cottages of Britain.
Back in the Dark Ages, after the last of the Roman Legions were withdrawn from the province of Britannia (410AD), the survivors of the Romano-British peoples, and their Celtic neighbours, made do with virtually camping out in the superb villas and municipal buildings left behind, along with their tiled roofs. As these fell into disrepair, they were ‘mined’ for their stone and tile, and in some cases re-roofed with local materials such as straw or, if available, dried reeds. The Angles, Saxons and Jutes who invaded Britain brought their own building styles with them (including the thatched Great Hall for communal living), and the Danes who settled in about half of what was to become England – the Danelaw, as it was known – were experts at making good, sound thatched buildings, as the excavations at Jorvik (York) have shown.
Thatching is, therefore, an ancient art, and one old enough to have given rise to a surname for those who were skilled in it – Thatcher (as in the late Sir Denis Thatcher!) It is known throughout the world, from the tropics to the temperate zones, and you can use bundles of many forms of plant material to form a thatch (straw from any cereal crop, grass, coconut tree fronds, heather, reeds, etc. depending on the climate and availability). In the Middle Ages, the prevalent strain of wheat (Triticum aestivum) grew to about 5 feet tall (the ‘dwarfing genes’ which made modern wheat much more productive were first discovered in the 1960s). These naturally long stalks made excellent thatching material, and wheat straw was very popular for roofing.
Fire is the most dangerous hazard which any thatched building faces. Usually, this starts by either a spark from an ill-attended fireplace, or localized over-heating due to bad chimney maintenance. Depending on usage and type of fuel burnt, chimneys may need to be swept every 3 to 6 months and homeowners should expect the sweep to give them a report on the condition of the flue, so that repairs can be made or a flue liner fitted, where necessary. There is an ancient ordinance which forbids the erection of thatched buildings within the City of London (following the disastrous Great Fire of London in 1666). However, an exception was made for the New Globe Theatre – opened in 1997, and a close replica of the building of Shakespeare’s time – as their thatch has a system of sprinklers buried within it! It wasn’t until the 1800s, and the growth of the Welsh slate industry, that cheap, durable, non-inflammable roofing spread across the country. The production of roof tiles (and use of vernacular stone roofing) also proved popular in various areas.
As well as fire hazards, a thatched roof has a finite life. Like all biological materials, it will degrade; the ancient way was to lay a new layer on top of the existing one (some Mediaeval thatch was found which was nearly 5 feet thick!) Chicken wire, as shown on this beautiful thatched cottage in the village of Kedington, Suffolk, maintains the integrity of the thatch – and discourages birds from robbing it for nest material! In these modern times, thatched properties are extremely desirable, and very expensive – as well as being a delight to the eye.
The pink colour of the cottage? It was traditional in this area of Suffolk to give the exterior plaster a coat of ‘Suffolk pink’. This is done nowadays with a coloured ‘wash’, but in olden times the effect was achieved by using diluted bull’s blood!