Christopher Kirk Master Thatcher, Essex. Specialists in long straw and water reed thatching for Essex, south Cambridge and Hertfordshire east

The truth about thatching

Interesting discussion points about thatching

Why thatch is such a brilliant thing

Not only is thatch a traditional craft with an ancient history, thatch provides fantastic insulation, both for heat and for sound. Thatch also has impeccable green credentials, using material that is benign means that there are no worries about environmental damage or pollution, and a minimal carbon footprint is involved compared with other roofing alternatives. Not to mention that your house will look beautiful and you will have enhanced its value once it has been re-thatched. Thatched properties are very sought after and tend to retain their value.

Art cannot be measured

Thatching is a traditional craft. The methods and materials used vary from region to region, as does the language used to describe them. Thatching is part of a line of history that goes back into the mists of time, a craft as old as napping knives out of flint. All this, interesting as it is, adds up to an area of the building trade that is not so open to controlled and defined measurable specifications and standards.

Sometimes such a lack of standards can lead to what can tactfully be called 'lively debate' where it is not really possible to agree exactly what fundamental terms like 'long straw' really mean. This needs to be borne in mind when talking about thatch and when translating discussion into actual work, a roof over your head and hard cash to pay. I have over twenty years of experience, and I make every effort to carry out my business in a clear, honest and straightforward manner. This website aims to help explain the basics and provide links where you can read further, but do bear in mind that in thatching, with the best of intentions, some issues are a matter of debate.

Traditional Thatcher

Being a Traditional Thatcher means being trained to understand and follow the thatching traditions of the area. With more than twenty years on the job, I am experienced with traditional thatch materials – Long Straw, Water Reed and Wheat Reed. I am also fully versed in the local traditions of the areas where I work – North Essex, Cambridgeshire and east Hertfordshire. I’m able to be versatile with the decorative details of different finishes, ensuring, when required, that they are authentic to the locality, or finishing the thatch to your own preferences.

Costs of materials going through the roof

There continue to be stories in the press about price rises of Thatcher’s materials. I try my best to hold my prices steady. This is not easy, as there often tends to be a long gap between quoting a job and starting it, during which time the materials cost can go up alarmingly. I have at times ended up working at a loss through not passing on price increases, so from now on I am reserving the right to make extra charges in cases where materials costs have risen beyond a certain point.

Trends in thatching

Thatching is not an area that tends to be subject to very rapid change, especially as currently local authorities such as Uttlesford don't give planning permission for thatching new build extensions to thatched properties, instead specifying that they should use materials such as ceramic tiles to emphasise the differing historical characteristics of each part of the building. The majority of thatching work is dominated by the ideal of conserving the manner and styles of building dating back to the seventeenth century and before. Despite this there are discernible trends.

The details of how a thatched roof is dressed, especially including the way the ridge is attached and how the wooden ties are arranged, have historically been a matter of custom in particular areas, customs which have tended to be very much preserved by, and at the discretion of, the local Thatcher.

Recently I have noticed clients getting more involved in wanting to discuss details of style. Clients are now likely not only to specify if their ridge is flush or block cut, but also take an interest in the details of the final dressing.

Straw dogs

Straw finial

There is a tradition of decorating thatched roofs with what are properly called Straw Finials. These generally consist of animals such as cockerels, dogs or pigs modelled in straw and placed at the top of the ridge. This tradition originates from the West country and although it is not part of the authentic thatching traditions of the locations where I tend to work, I can supply quotes and arrange design and installation if required. If you are interested in including a straw finial on your property, get in touch to discuss.

Long Straw traditions and listed building consent

Using long straw tends to be the preferred approach of the Local Authorities (The people who provide listed building consent) in the areas I work. As part of a general policy of conservation of the building stock, these Authorities are interested in preserving the appearance of historic structures, and aim to encourage the use of traditional methods and materials. This is not always a straightforward issue. During the history of a typical seventeenth century cottage, for instance, it may have been re-thatched several times, and different materials may have been used. The Local Authority will generally suggest that Long straw should be used, however, if you can supply evidence (such as photos), to show that your building was previously thatched with other materials, they may be persuaded to give permission to follow the tradition you’ve evidenced.

Long straw is an excellent material, but applying it is labour intensive, it takes the longest time and the most work to prepare, so it is not always the cheapest option. Long straw lasts well (especially if the thatching is done well), is in keeping with local traditions and looks beautiful. It does not last as well as Water Reed, which is a more expensive material, and which is not generally tended to be a traditional material in most of the places I usually work in.

Using Long straw

For each day’s work on the roof putting the straw into place, up to a day is spent on the ground preparing the material in the form of ‘yealms’ or combed bundles of straw. A typical small cottage might have up to two tons of straw applied to the roof.

Don’t be alarmed if you don’t see us every day on site during the process of thatching your roof, we’ll be busy preparing the straw off site.

The straw that broke your roof

The sound of your thatch breaking down

After it has rained and the sun comes out, if you listen carefully, you may hear a quiet but definite clicking noise coming from your thatched roof. This, I have heard it suggested, is the sound of your straw breaking down. The theory is that as the sun beats down on the damp straws, the drying process stresses the fibres, causing them to snap into smaller lengths, gradually compromising their ability to waterproof your roof. The clicking sound is thus the sound of your roof gradually disintegrating. Thanks to Mark Dawson for this observation.