Thatching in Berkshire & Oxfordshire

103aModern Oxfordshire contains a good deal of the old county of Berkshire; an area now mainly known as The Vale of the White Horse. But it is the meandering River Thames, that forms the sinuous traditional boundary, between these two historic counties.

Along both sides of the Thames, thatching follows the rounded, Southern thatching tradition. However thatch, north of the city of Oxford is often a little more angular; influences from the Northern and Eastern traditions can be detected. Roofs are a little squarer and gables narrower but thatching here essentially follows a Southern style.

Thatching spars, or sprees as they were known in Berkshire, are occasionally seen around the edges of some multilayed roofs; echoing the former widespread use of long straw thatching, in both counties. A material now rarely seen…


Watery boundary… The Thames at Radcot Weir, in 1814. Twenty years before, the scene was described as… ‘a rude railing stretched across the stream from a group of willows on one side, to a bank with two thatched habitations on the other.’

In times past, other materials than straw were utilised; 125 cartloads of heath, being used at Berkshire’s Windsor Castle, in 1362. This could be one of a number of useful materials; perhaps broom or heather. Probably building works at the castle needed winter protection, or a large ancillary roof needed coating. Either way, all those cartloads provided a huge amount of work for some medieval thatchers.

Mr William Mayor, in his Agricultural Report, reported that thatching would ‘probably become obsolete’; in 1813. He was commenting on the craft in Berkshire. But here and in Oxfordshire, time has proven him wrong; the modern visitor will see as much thatching in these two counties, as almost anywhere else in Britain. Most especially in the area of the Vale of the White Horse and in northern Oxfordshire…

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North Oxfordshire… There is a great deal of thatch hereabouts. As with much of this county, thatch is combined with cotswold stone walls, to create some very picturesque cottages. The modern roofs, above, at Bloxham are in combed wheat reed, now the most popular material. The old image of Great Tew, below, shows all in Edwardian, long straw thatch.

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More north Oxford thatch… From Banbury; a town that seemingly did not get around to banning thatch. The lower, late Victorian photo depicts ‘Christ Church and Broad Street’. A couple of roofs remained here; each with some elaborate wooden guttering. The further roof sporting a new long straw thatch… A town centre pub dating from the 1600’s is opposite.

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Oxfordshire literary thatch… The left hand property was once a blacksmiths and post office, where young Flora Thompson worked, at Fringford. The area roundabout being immortalised, in her book, ‘Lark rise to Candleford’… The upper image shows ‘The Barley Mow’, at Clifton Hampden. This cruck built, fourteenth century pub, was mentioned in Jerome K. Jerome’s 1889 classic, ‘Three Men in a Boat”… ”If you stay the night on land at Clifton, you cannot do better than put up at the Barley Mow.” The image dates from this period. The pub is still going strong.

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Oxfordshire estate thatch… 1835-1837, at Pyrton, near Watlington. The three thatcher’s bills shown above, relate to the Pyrton estate, then owned by one Hugh Hamersley. He seems to have employed a least three thatchers, over a three year period. Each charging roughly the same amount, for work ‘by the square’ (i.e.100 square feet). The central bill, of Isaac Frankin, mentions ‘200 sprags’ (thatching spars) along with ‘ledgers & twine’, for tying on his work. All the thatching would have been in long straw. Other estate accounts, show purchases of ‘straw for thatching’; bought ‘by the load’, at between one pound and thirty shillings a load. This supply of materials, by the employer was usual practice…

North of the Thames… Only just, at Eynsham; in what looks like the 1940’s. The thatcher is coating the property in Church Street, with a thin, post war coat of long straw… The cottage is still thatched, along with several others in this large village.

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South Oxfordshire… Two stone cottages around three centuries old. Above, combed wheat reed at Clinkard’s Hill, Garsington. And below, is an old image of a long straw thatch at Holton. A cottage now also coated in combed wheat…

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Little Milton… Two estate lodges, coated in combed wheat reed. The right hand image shows this area’s more traditional material, long straw; being laid by local thatcher Mr F. Wood, probably in the 1940’s. His demonstration, was likely some miles away from southern Oxfordshire, as the photo was taken by P.H.Given of Guildford.

No Smoking Allowed… Petrol and thatch, at Benson in the mid 1930’s. Once on the main Oxford to London road, this village was chosen as a site to build a KCB (Keep the Countryside Beautiful) Roadhouse, in the inter war years. Thatched with Norfolk reed, no doubt by thatchers from East Anglia. The buildings evidently won an award, being in operation until the Second World War. The cafe and petrol pumps did not succumb to their most obvious fate; but were demolished, when the runway at the adjacent airfield, was extended in 1941… The 1930’s also saw a similar but larger thatched cafe and petrol station, at Haldon Hill near Exeter.



In the Vale of the White Horse… Three images from an area with much to show. The centre cottage, in the right hand image is still thatched, at East Hendred. Although the long straw seen here, from the 1920’s, is now replaced by combed wheat reed. A material used on the large, seventeenth century property, at Stanford in the Vale, on the left. The modern image of roofs at Uffington, below, also shows combed wheat. The far cottage having just been completed… 103h


‘The Nook’, Old Didcot… This cottage lay in Berkshire, when this photo was taken, in around 1930. The roof of repaired long straw, is now covered in combed wheat, lying today in ‘South Oxfordshire’…

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Boxford in Berkshire… Modern Berkshire lies in the south of the area, covered by the two historic counties. Here the thatch is generally curved. As the roofs, on these two splendid homes show. Both once single storey, with a dark attic. Windows of various sizes now give the modern thatcher much to do…

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Black and white thatch… Many Berkshire roofs top a timber framed property. The left hand cottage at Theale shows a directional repaired roof, in around 1930. It’s modern counterpart is of combed wheat. This also covers the right hand roof, near Lambourn.

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West and East Berkshire… The upper cottages at Leverton stand close by the Wiltshire border and are part of a model farm, dating from the early nineteenth century. As ever all thatch is now in combed wheat, replacing the original long straw. Over in the east there is much less thatch. But the lower image shows a rarity, near Waltham St Lawrence. Where a long straw, multi layered roof is still to be seen…

Finally, a royal thatched folly… In the very south east of Berkshire, close to modern London, once stood a remarkable thatched building… 3u

Royal Lodge… The original thatched building lay in Windsor Great Park three miles south of Windsor Castle.

This spectacular creation was the brainchild of the Prince Regent, later king George IV. Once a smallish cottage, housing the Deputy Ranger of Windsor Great Park, it was taken over by the prince, to act as temporary accommodation. But instead he had the building enlarged several times, employing a favoured architect John Nash. The property, in the fashionable Cottage Orne style, was inhabited by the Prince Regent in 1815. The amount of thatching involved was enormous. But what suits one king, may not suit another, thus in 1830, when George’s brother William became king, he had virtually all the building demolished… Its replacement still stands and in its large grounds lies another royal cottage, built on a much smaller scale… 3v

Y Bwthyn Bach, (The Little Cottage) a gift to Princess, later Queen Elizabeth; from the people of Wales, in 1932.

One Regency thatcher thought it worthwhile to place an advert, perhaps hoping to pick up some upper class trade hereabouts? ‘ WM. BURFORT respectfully informs Noblemen and Gentlemen, that he performs every Art in LAYING of REED, and Reed-Straw THATCHING, also Plain Straw Thatching. Gentlemen’s Summer houses Thatched, and curiously lined and ornamented with heath..’. Windsor & Eton Express, Sunday 27th December 1818.

Around twenty miles, downstream from Windsor, on the Surrey bank of the Thames, lies another thatched royal palace. Which is found at the end of the following page… HERE