A thatched country cottage is an English dream. But for some, that dream has become a nightmare. According to the National Society of Master Thatchers, some owners have been told that replacing thatch with anything other than the alleged ‘traditional’ local material could bring a fine of £20,000 and/or six months in prison. 

The local council in Cerne Abbas in west Dorset is insisting that thatcher Rod Miller uses wheat reed for a pair of semi-detached cottages. Mr Miller wants to use longer-lasting water reed: ‘Using wheat reed means my client could face a bill of up to £30,000 every 10 years or so.’

Mr Miller and his client, backed by local MP Oliver Letwin, are demanding that the case be put to a public planning appeal. ‘Going round the village, we found that of the 30 thatched cottages, only 3 had wheat reed. All the others had water reed.’ One was the local pub, which has had a written warning. Mr Miller, who is vice chairman of the National Society of Master Thatchers, says: ‘I got the same warning verbally, but because the pub’s owned by a big business, nothing’s happened—and the council’s been threatening action for more than a year.’

The council’s Development Services Manager John Greenslade said: ‘In Cerne Abbas, we advise people to use wheat reed, which is the prevalent local and traditional material. This guidance is based on a Dorset Thatch policy developed with local thatchers and other councils across the county. We also take into account the Government’s planning-policy guidance that any development should preserve or enhance the character and appearance of listed buildings or the conservation area.’

Dorset is not the only battleground. In neighbouring Hampshire, the local council discovered that a cottage in a conservation area in the village of Wherwell had been reroofed with different thatch and that there had been no planning application. The planners refused a retrospective application, and could have insisted that the roof be replaced with the original materials. Instead, the council made it a condition that after 14 years the thatch must be replaced by the council-favoured thatch. So far, the material chosen by the thatchers has lasted six years—before that, the roof had to be replaced three times in 10 years. It’s a decision that could hamper a future sale and cost the owner tens of thousands of pounds.

In Elsworth, Cambridgeshire, the council objected that the thatch put on by local thatcher Malcolm Dodson didn’t have enough ears poking out. Turning down an appeal against the council’s decision, the planning inspector wrote: ‘The proposals would cause significant harm to the appearance and special interest of the listed building and to the character and appearance of the Elsworth Conservation Area.’

Mr Dodson, the son of a master thatcher and now aged 66, has spent a lifetime in the business with his father and four elder brothers. He says: ‘The council wanted a shaggy natural look, done the way they did it in 1850, but that would have halved the life of the roof. In another seven years or so, it would have cost the owners about £30,000. I’ve reported them to Trading Standards for promoting shoddy practices.’

The National Society of Master Thatchers is now taking up Mr Dodson’s case. Society Chief Executive Marjorie Sanders argues: ‘The council doesn’t understand what they’re talking about. Either the birds take the ears or the ears fall off after a while due to the natural degradation process. Mr Dodson had done a superb job for his client.’

She contends that today’s thatching is the best it has ever been. ‘Good thatchers are passionate about their craft. Historic character as it is perceived today is not the result of the material used, but of the skill and intention of the thatcher.’

‘The problem lies with the guidance notes issued by English Heritage. What was issued as guidance is regarded by councils as gospel. Some council officers look at thatching as a countryside craft instead of what it is—a commercial business in which people make practical decisions. Thatch has and always will be an evolving tradition, and ill-judged efforts to turn back the clocks and effectively stagnate the craft carry enormous and inherent dangers.’

For English Heritage, Chris Wood, acting head of its building and conservation team, replied: ‘We have always advised that, as in previous times, work should be based on local straw. Essentially we want to use authentic materials—like for like. Part of the problem is that East Anglia can’t now produce enough water reed, so cheaper reed is imported. We still maintain that straw—where appropriate—gives good longevity, but then again, that can’t always be predicted accurately because a host of local factors can affect it. We issued the guidance because it’s very difficult for local authorities to be experts on this—it’s a very technical matter and we’re always there to help if we can.’

  • Dennis Wright

    Attitudes MUST change. Thatch must be recognised as a 21st century, modern roofing material, and the industry must evolve in a dynamic way to encompass this. This isn’t to say that the heritage tradition shouldn’t be also encouraged on very old buildings, but quality shouldn’t be lost purely to seek this end. Remember that, if shoddy local materials are used, the entire roof structure can be threatened. A good coat of imported reed will temporarily protect the deeper layers, ‘temporary’ being up to 30 years or more, a small part of the life of, say, a 500-year-old building. The original material can be used in the future, hopefully when good straw, for example, becomes more available. The old varieties must be grown, not over-fertilised. Managed local reedbeds must have smaller filter pre-beds to remove excess nutrients.

    The value of carbon-negative thatch, as opposed to polluting tile and slate production, will become not only desirable but necessary as global awareness starts to hit home. Now is the time to prepare this industry for its future important ecological, as well as aesthetic role.