Living in a Historic thatch… Are you on somebody’s list?

If you live in an old thatched property, the answer is almost certainly yes…The list in question, is the record of Buildings of Historical and Architectural Interest. And includes the vast majority of old thatched buildings; which are watched over by various official bodies throughout Britain…

Being on the list, means the building is protected by law… And permission is required, to alter any aspect of a protected building… Day to day administration, of listing, is usually carried out by the conservation department, of the local authority. They have a statutory obligation, to protect any such properties in their area. In extreme cases of neglect, they can enforce a purchase order and repair the property at public expense, often selling it on…
thatch tranquair peeblesshire

An ‘A’ category listed thatch, tucked away at Tranquair House in Peeblesshire. Built in 1834, with walls of heather. Now with a jolly ridge of the same material… ‘Listing’ applies to buildings both great and small. With the force the of law to protect them. Photo; courtesy Tranquair House.

So much for the scary stuff… The main point for any thatchowner to remember is that only altering the building requires permission. Keeping things as they are, does not… So replacing the thatch, with similar materials in a similar style, should not ruffle any official feathers. And being listed doesn’t mean you can’t change anything; only that you have obtain permission, to carry out alterations.

The first protection, for historic buildings was set up under the Town and Country Planning Act, in 1947. Since then, further legislation has refined the system, until today; when there are several classes of protection and a much wider scope… In England, Wales and Scotland; there are three classes of protection… Grade one, or Category A, in Scotland. Covers the top few percent of the list. It contains buildings deemed to be of national importance. Grade two * or Category B. Covers buildings of regional or especial local importance. Grade two or Category C. Covers the bulk of listed buildings, including most thatch cottages… Any building, in fairly original condition, dating to before 1840, is considered suitable for inclusion. Other parts of Britain have a very similar set up…

Many listed buildings, are also included in Conservation Areas. As the term implies, this covers specific areas, considered to be of especial architectural interest. Permission needs to be obtained, within these, not only to alter buildings; but also for works to trees, hedges, outbuildings etc. So you may live in a new thatched building and still be covered by conservation area legislation…

Not many years ago, all that interested a local conservation department, would have been the preservation of a thatched roof. Without regard, to the type of replacement thatching material, or ridge… That long battle, stopping tile and slate roofs replacing thatch, seems to have been won. The emphasis, is now on preserving local thatching materials and styles. This has caused some
controversy, when owners have tried to change the type of thatch, on their property… Especially a move from long straw to water reed. There are quite a few misconceptions, about the validity of changing from one material to another… Which are examined below.

Often, the owner of a thatched property, wishes to change over to water reed, as they assume it lasts longer… As has been mentioned, this is not always so. For example a thatchowner, in say Wiltshire, is going to be sadly disappointed, if they think a coat of water reed is going to last the sixty years, common in Norfolk… With double the rainfall, they should be happy, with a thatch giving half that lifespan… And even then, the reeds will have to be of the right type. On large straight roofs, long thick water reed can be used; and this does last a goodly while. The large stems, creating an open coatwork; allowing drying air to circulate… But many thatched buildings are small, and the roofs complicated. Water reed can be used here, but is has to be tapered, Fine reed. Only this will allow the thatcher, to follow an intricate roof line. Many of which, were only ever designed to be thatched with a cereal straw… Much of this fine water reed, is really no more robust than combed wheat reed or indeed long straw. So any advantage is lost…

Changes… An old image of ‘The Wheatsheaf Inn‘, in around 1930. And a new one of ‘The Harvester’; at Raby, just across the River Mersey from Liverpool… They are of course the same pub. Both the name and the type of thatch having changed. The passing years have seen the multilayered ,long straw roof, being stripped and replaced; by a single layered coat of water reed. Both perfectly legitimate forms of the craft. But giving quite a different look to a building… Which is what a local conservation department, is so often worried about.

Another argument, used in favour of water reed, is that it is easy to obtain throughout the year; this is true. Even with a good harvest, there is simply not enough wheat straw grown, for thatching; to supply all the demands of the craft. And when there is a bad harvest, the position quickly becomes critical. Native resources of water reed, are not sufficient to supplement a shortage of wheat straw… It has been the ever increasing supplies of imported reed, that have allowed the industry to grow. The only answer to this, is for more farmers to diversify and grow thatching wheat. But even that, cannot lift the spectre of a poor harvest.

Thatchers like the steady supply of water reed; and it is much easier to use, especially on timbers. As has been shown, stripping the old roof often changes the shape of the thatch… And can lead to conflict with the conservation department. But when dealing with a change, from combed wheat reed to water reed, this does not have to be the case… Over the years, as many thatchers first came into contact with the material, originally Norfolk reed from the Broads; an idea has come to be accepted. That the only way to thatch with water reed, is to use the methods employed in Norfolk… Which of course are perfectly acceptable. But involve stripping the roof down to the timbers and creating a thatch, with a flat angular appearance. But there is an alternative method. In the combed wheat reed areas, of the West Country, many thatchers adapted water reed, to the local rounded style. Here they fix the reeds, with thatching spars, to keep a multilayed roof… After a few years it is very difficult to tell the difference, between this type of roof, or the traditional combed wheat thatch.

thatch at lustleigh devon

Complete with curves… This new thatch, in water reed, will fool even the experts in a few years. The local Devon shape has been retained, on this cottage at Lustleigh. The lower image shows the same cottage thatched in combed wheat reed, in around 1955..

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There is much prejudice against this method, in the craft, as many thatchers insist that water reed can only be used on a single layered roof. But from personal experience, I can say that fixing with spars does work… So perhaps, a little more adaptability, within the trade could help… Using this method would also avoid unnecessary roof timbering. As the timbers, on old wheat straw cottages, are usually quite uneven, and best left alone. A change to water reed could mean the expense of a complete retimbering. But these methods can’t be applied, where a change from long straw to water reed is desired. It has to be one or the other…

thatch in a storm

You may have already seen thie image in The Beginner’s Guide page. But it is worth showing again, as a multi-layered water reed roof, over fifteen years old. Not a reed out of place; happily shedding water…

By retaining a multilayered roof, what are called the Historic Underlayers would also be preserved; making the conservation officer very happy. These are the previous coats of thatching, which can be as old as the property. Most Smoke Blackened Thatch, dates from the medieval period… These layers are almost like tree rings, recording the materials used and even the state of local agriculture, for centuries past. This has been described, as one of the best archaeological resources in Western Europe. I would suggest that any thatchowner considers all the options very carefully, before destroying this unique record of their property.


Lots of layers… This roof at Winterborne Whitechurch, in Dorset, shows some rather thin roof timbers. And the record, of every coat of thatch laid on it, since it was constructed… Happily, all this is still preserved; under a coat of water reed; fixed down with thatching spars.

Water reed, most certainly does have place in the craft of thatching. Large and new, suitably designed buildings, can look good in this material. With almost unlimited supplies, the sky’s the limit… This has allowed the trade to flourish. But past generations, have also left a legacy, which we should respect… And smaller, older buildings, generally suit the cereal straw thatching, they were designed for. All types of thatching materials have a place in the trade… The trick is to use them wisely.