Thatcher Kit Davies
Don’t be afraid of thatch: it is eco-friendly, not simply a quaint, gingerbread-house anachronism. Many of today’s buzzwords apply: traditional craftsmanship, sustainability (it uses natural, renewable materials) and practicality (thatch is an excellent insulator). All of this adds to the obvious aesthetic appeal.
Kit Davis, an Oxfordshire based thatcher, is chairman of the National Society of Master Thatchers. His small team works on jobs ranging from village houses, barns, former agricultural labourers’ cottages, and cottages ornées, to large, early-20th-century Arts-and-Crafts residences. ‘There are also lots of new thatched houses going up now,’ says Mr Davis, ‘particularly in Hampshire, Dorset and West Sussex’.
Three tools are essential to the trade: a ladder, a leggett (for tapping reeds or straws into place) and a mallet (for knocking in the hazel spars). Thatchers generally work with one of three materials, the longest lasting being Norfolk or water reed a wetland reed with an average lifespan of 50 years. Next in longevity is combed wheat reed, a wheat straw with a 25to 30-year lifespan. Least durable is long straw, which lasts for about 10 to 25 years. This is becoming the most expen-sive material, as it requires more preparatory work and is therefore more labour intensive (labour now accounts for about 40% of the cost of a job).
Reed is generally fixed to the rafters in just one layer, whereas straw is often pegged to a lower layer after the rot has been removed. With either material, the ridge needs to be replaced every 12 to 15 years, decorative ridges representing an opportunity for the thatcher to show off his skills. Mod-ern harvesting techniques mean that straw produced using traditional threshing machines is becoming much rarer, but good quality material is still available. However, there is now only one variety of wheat straw suit-able for thatching on the nat-ional seedbank list, although two or three good varieties of a wheat/rye cross are available.
‘The conservation lobby believes in maintaining what they perceive to be regional styles of thatching,’ says Mr Davis, ‘but we disagree. Traditionally, thatchers used the best of what ever material was available to them in a particular place, at a particular time, and it was this versatility that created stylistic variations.’ Thatching has always adapted itself to changes in farming practice and the economic environment, but many now fear that English Heritage is gradually eroding their freedom as craftsmen: ‘They want to encourage greater use of long straw, which they misguidedly regard as more historically authentic, but thatchers as professionals should be able to recommend whichever material is most appropriate to a particular job’.
Kit Davis & Co: 01235 832286
- Before choosing who to use, compare work by different thatchers, including some of their earlier jobs, so you can see how well the thatch has weathered.
- Weather, location, aspect, proximity of trees, maintenance
of the roof ridge and, most crucially, the thatcher’s skill, are all important factors in influencing how durable a thatched roof will prove to be.
- Be wary of fire risks, particularly with a deep thatch round the chimneys (for more information see www.nsmt.eu Ensure that you are employing a professional with public-liability insurance (the National Society of Master Thatchers represents about 40% of British thatchers).
This article first appeared in Country Life magazine on June 1, 2006.