Thatched cottages are a quintessentially English icon © ian woolcock, Shutterstock
A thatched cottage with a rose wandering around the door is one of the quintessential images of English rural living, and with chocolate-box cottages around every Dorset corner thatch is very much part of the landscape and culture.
Thatching is one of the oldest ways of protecting houses from the elements, and in Britain is believed to date back to the Bronze Age. Not all of the thatched properties you see in Dorset are old, however: many new building projects include houses that are thatched in order to blend in with the surroundings and clear the planning authorities.
Dorset master thatcher, Edward Taylor, better known as ‘Spike’, has been working in the thatching trade since he left school. Before he could call himself qualified, he had to complete a seven-year apprenticeship. According to Spike, the ancient craft takes this long to learn because numerous styles, techniques and materials are used – styles which also vary from county to county.
Spike works mainly with combed wheat reed and water reed. Today, much of the water reed used in England is imported from other countries where it is cheaper to produce but local alternatives can be found. Spike grows several varieties of thatching straw, which can be seen on the roofs he creates. He told me reed is still cut at Abbotsbury and used on the Ilchester Estate buildings, including the 14th-century Tithe Barn, which is by far the largest thatched building in the area. It is fascinating to contemplate that the barn must have been re-thatched by many hands over the centuries yet always with reeds from the same stretch of land.
Spike explained to me that thatching wheat is cut with a reaper/binder and the sheaves (bundles) are ‘stooked’ up in the fields. It is at this point that I began to realise thatching has its own language of ancient technical terms, so Spike had to translate – eight sheaves make a stook, 16 make a stock. The sheaves are left in the stook for two weeks to dry slowly and evenly, and are then put into the rick before going on the threshing machine or reed comber. Here, the short straws, leaf and flag are combed out and the grain and chaff removed. The long stems are kept perfectly straight. Finally, the straw is trussed up and bundled, ready to use.
Laying the thatch is tough physical work and often a battle with the elements. The primary tool is a legget, which is used to coerce the material into position, a process known as ‘dressing’. A ‘spar’, a branch of split hazel wood tapered to a point at each end and twisted into a V shape, is used to staple the thatch into place. Each course overlaps the one below it, providing a continuous depth of straw over the entire roof. The ridge is where the thatcher can really leave his mark; Spike favours the traditional pointed end, which has been used for centuries.
Most of Spike’s tools have been made by local blacksmiths and his legget heads cast at Bridport Foundry. He scours the antique farm machinery section at country fairs, looking for the original tools of his trade, now prized above some of the newer versions. He even coppices his own hazel, to make traditional fixings for the thatch – spars, ledgers, liggers and sways. Spike points out that qualifying and working as a master thatcher is not for the faint-hearted: the few men who carry on this ancient craft do so for the love of it and are fiercely proud.
While we all love the look of a thatched roof, people are divided as to whether they would want to live under one. Beauty doesn’t come cheap: the roof needs to be re-thatched about every 25 years and the ridge needs to be replaced around every ten years. Depending on the roof and the materials used re-thatching can cost around £25,000; on top of that there is usually an insurance premium because of a perceived fire risk. Thankfully, the undeniable charm of a thatched roof means that they will remain part of the rural landscape, just as they have for the past 4,500 years.