An age-old dream – the thatched cottage

By: shortfinals

Apr 17 2011

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Category: British Isles, England, Great Britain, London, Plants


Focal Length:26mm
Shutter:1/0 sec
Camera:NIKON D40

You’ve seen them in countless films and British-produced TV series over the years. They lend character to dramas and a backdrop to the juiciest murders, the strangest goings-on that ever playwright or novelist can devise. Some of them are of national importance, and are well-preserved (along with their delightful gardens) – think Anne Hathaway’s cottage at Shottery, just outside Stratford-upon-Avon (although her husband was much more famous than she was!) Most of them are scattered around the landscape – the majority of survivors are in the southern part of the British Isles – some in better condition than others, all with fascinating stories to tell. They are the thatched cottages of Britain.

Back in the Dark Ages, after the last of the Roman Legions were withdrawn from the province of Britannia (410AD), the survivors of the Romano-British peoples, and their Celtic neighbours, made do with virtually camping out in the superb villas and municipal buildings left behind, along with their tiled roofs. As these fell into disrepair, they were ‘mined’ for their stone and tile, and in some cases re-roofed with local materials such as straw or, if available, dried reeds. The Angles, Saxons and Jutes who invaded Britain brought their own building styles with them (including the thatched Great Hall for communal living), and the Danes who settled in about half of what was to become England – the Danelaw, as it was known – were experts at making good, sound thatched buildings, as the excavations at Jorvik (York) have shown.

Thatching is, therefore, an ancient art, and one old enough to have given rise to a surname for those who were skilled in it – Thatcher (as in the late Sir Denis Thatcher!) It is known throughout the world, from the tropics to the temperate zones, and you can use bundles of many forms of plant material to form a thatch (straw from any cereal crop, grass, coconut tree fronds, heather, reeds, etc. depending on the climate and availability). In the Middle Ages, the prevalent strain of wheat (Triticum aestivum) grew to about 5 feet tall (the ‘dwarfing genes’ which made modern wheat much more productive were first discovered in the 1960s). These naturally long stalks made excellent thatching material, and wheat straw was very popular for roofing.

Fire is the most dangerous hazard which any thatched building faces. Usually, this starts by either a spark from an ill-attended fireplace, or localized over-heating due to bad chimney maintenance. Depending on usage and type of fuel burnt, chimneys may need to be swept every 3 to 6 months and homeowners should expect the sweep to give them a report on the condition of the flue, so that repairs can be made or a flue liner fitted, where necessary. There is an ancient ordinance which forbids the erection of thatched buildings within the City of London (following the disastrous Great Fire of London in 1666). However, an exception was made for the New Globe Theatre – opened in 1997, and a close replica of the building of Shakespeare’s time –  as their thatch has a system of sprinklers buried within it! It wasn’t until the 1800s, and the growth of the Welsh slate industry, that  cheap, durable, non-inflammable roofing spread across the country. The production of roof tiles (and use of vernacular stone roofing) also proved popular in various areas.

As well as fire hazards, a thatched roof has a finite life. Like all biological materials, it will degrade; the ancient way was to lay a new layer on top of the existing one (some Mediaeval thatch was found which was nearly 5 feet thick!) Chicken wire, as shown on this beautiful thatched cottage in the village of Kedington, Suffolk, maintains the integrity of the thatch – and discourages birds from robbing it for nest material! In these modern times, thatched properties are extremely desirable, and very expensive – as well as being a delight to the eye.

The pink colour of the cottage?  It was traditional in this area of Suffolk to give the exterior plaster a coat of ‘Suffolk pink’. This is done nowadays with a coloured ‘wash’, but in olden times the effect was achieved by using diluted bull’s blood!

4 comments on “An age-old dream – the thatched cottage”

  1. […] Reference image/blog: Short Finals wordpress blog! […]


  2. Hi I used your picture as reference for my dailysketch here Hope this is ok as its a lovely reference.




  3. Where is this cottage, please?


    • The cottage is in the little village of Kedington, Suffolk, which lies on the River Stour. It was on the opposite side of the road to one owned by a good friend of mine.


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