Thatching in Cornwall


113aThe thatching style in Cornwall follows the South Western tradition, of using combed wheat reed. Although rather remote for much of its history and with a strong Celtic heritage; this area had and has only minor differences, in the craft, from the rest of the South Western traditional area. This suggests that the South Western style of thatching predates Cornwall’s cultural isolation.

Combed wheat reed seems to have been the material of choice for centuries. Mr Morgan found nothing else being used, on buildings large and small, in his 1815 Agricultural Report on Cornwall. A few years earlier, in 1811, a lease at St. Mellion stipulated that the lessee to had to provide 25 sheaves of reed each weighing 40 lbs…. at 8d. a sheaf . Other leases of this period also mention these 40 pound sheaves, along with ‘spears’ ( thatching spars), used to fix the material.

As can be seen in the next page, the Isles of Scilly, lying off the tip of the peninsular, used roped ‘Highland’ methods of thatching. There is some evidence that similar methods were also used in parts of mainland Cornwall. Ceila Fiennes, in her ‘Great Journey from Newcastle to Cornwall’, in 1698, noted that on the north coast of Cornwall ‘ the winds so troublesome they are forced to spin straw and so make a caul or net worke to lay over their thatch on their ricks and houses’. At Tintagel, in Edwardian times, the thatch was ‘held on by ropes that are heavily weighted’. So noted one C. A. Dawson Scott, in his Nooks and Corners of Cornwall. As regards the last statement, there seems to be no pictorial evidence of this roping, on houses… As in other areas, where ‘Highland’ thatching methods once held sway, an improvement in agricultural practices, brought about more useable straw; allowing standard thatching methods, to become commonplace. Something that seemingly failed to take place on the Isles of Scilly…

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Exposed… Around Land’s End. The upper, late Victorian image of Sennen Cove, shows some worn standard work, in combed cereal thatch; with not a rope in sight. The lower photo depicts the nearby post office, a century and more ago. This windy location near Land’s End, still has half a dozen thatches, including the upper cottages. These old images shows the gables tight to the wall; similar to the thatching traditions of Brittany and Glamorgan…

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Several thatching terms, used in the Cornish language, were noted in the 1760’s, by William Borlase, Rector of Ludgvan; and by later compilers of Cornish/English dictionaries. Thatch having two names; Zoul & Teyz; the latter also meaning Roof, suggesting that for a long time they were one and the same… A Thatcher is a Toen, similar to the sister language of Wales. The name, for the directional method of rick thatching was noted as Eage.

Like most of the buildings it covers, thatch hereabouts is often finished simply; having a rather rugged look. Gently curved roofs and plain ridges are the norm. As seen above, old images of West Cornwall show narrow gable ends. Similar to those once found in Brittany and Glamorgan.

Today water reed is used as much as combed wheat. Thatchers here create the same curved shape for both. There is less thatch, than in much of neighbouring south west England; reflecting Cornwall’s industrial past. But a good many roofs are found, in villages near the long coastline; in some very picturesque locations…


Such as… The opposite cottages at Church Cove, on the Lizard, which enjoy some splendid sea views. Both cottages thatched in water reed; unlike the thatch, in the three images below.

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On the The Lizard… The image opposite depicts the far three storey thatch in the upper photo, in the late nineteenth century. The lower shows an Edwardian cottage at nearby Cadgwith. A village with around fifteen extant thatches. The unassuming cottage below, is the most southerly thatch, in mainland Britain…



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Cornish Pubs… The Anchor at Helston and The Punchbowl and Ladle at Feock. Both sporting their the pub signs, in straw, on the roof. A feature rarely seen outside Cornwall.

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Around St Agnes… And some plain thatching . Both buildings dating from the eighteenth century; and covered in combed wheat reed.

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Old and new combed wheat reed… At Crantock, near Newquay around 1920. And near Trewithian, below.

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Around Morwenstow a century and more ago… The thatching being plain and simple. The left hand pub has gone, but the right hand cottage remains. This being one of a dozen or so thatches still left in the parish. Many of which are owed by the Landmark Trust.



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Wayside thatch in North Cornwall… At Marhamchurch, above and at North Petherwin below. This lower thatch appears a little squarer, due to the eaves not being rounded off. This is also noticeable on the long gone pub at Morwenstow. Odd areas in North Devon also had and have this local feature.

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Finally…

Two of Cornwall’s most famous sons, have extant thatched buildings associated with them.

Near Camborne, lies the former home of Richard Trevithick; the railway engineer; a man born just before his time. His locomotive Captain Dick’s Puffer was up and running in 1804; but the rails broke. His steam Road Carriages ran at nine miles an hour; but failed on Cornwall’s stony highways. Full of good ideas he was no businessman, dying in poverty in 1833…

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Trevithick’s Cottage… At Higher Penponds. Our man lived here for a greater part of his early life; from the 1770’s onward. His former home is now in the care of The National Trust.

Although New Zealand can also lay claim to him, Robert Prometheus Fitzsimmons was born in Helston, in 1862. Emigrating as a child, he became Bob Fitzsimmons; world boxing champion in three weight divisions. With a name like his, I guess he grew up quick and tough…

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Fitzsimmons’ Cottage… Lies in one of Helston’s many narrow streets. And is not the only thatch in this attractive Cornish town.