What is the Purpose of Thatched Roofs?

Thatched roofs are a feature of many homes across the UK, and these have been around for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. It isn’t uncommon to see thatched roofs attached to older properties, especially cottages in the countryside, but thatching is becoming a far more popular choice for roofing materials in recent years. 

Thatched roofing, as with any roofing material, has one purpose, and that is to protect the interior of the property from adverse weather and the elements. The last thing you want is your property and possessions becoming damaged because the roof couldn’t hold up and it let the elements in. This is why the roofing structure is so important, as is the choice of which roofing material to use. 

While there are countless traditional and modern roofing materials available today, such as tile and slate, thatching remains a popular choice of roofing material, available in water reed, long straw, and combed wheat reed. This type of roofing is very durable, it adds unique character to a property, and it is also lovely to look at. 

So, the purpose of thatched roofs is to protect the interior of the property from the elements, much like any type of roofing material. And thatch does so extremely well thanks to the many benefits it offers. Thatching is a sustainable roofing material that is highly durable, lasting for around 15 – 20 years, depending on the type of thatch used, how well it is maintained, and the skill of the thatcher who installed it. 

Additionally, thatch is great for roofing because is acts as a natural insulator for your home, reducing the need to install other materials for insulation. A properly insulated home, with the help of a quality thatched roof, will remain cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter, all while keeping energy bills down. 

So, now you know more about the purpose of thatched roofs, which is the same as any other roofing material – to protect the interior of your property from the elements. You might now be wondering where you can find a thatcher to install a new thatched roof for your property, and this is something we can help with at NSMT. We have a handy Find a Thatcher database, where we can put you in contact with a registered master thatcher in your area. 

For further information regarding thatch, call us on 01530 222954. 

What are Thatched Roofs Made Of?

Now you know a little more about the purpose of thatched roofs, you might be thinking about investing in one yourself. To do this, you will need a better understanding of what materials are used to install thatched roofs, as this will not only help you maintain your thatched roof once installed, but also help you make a decision as to which thatching material best suits your home. 

There are three main thatching materials in use today, and these are known as: 

  • Water Reed 
  • Long Straw 
  • Combed Wheat Reed (Combed Cereal Straw) 

You can find out more about each thatching material below. 

Water Reed 

Water reed is a thatching material that is used most commonly in parts of the West Country and East Anglia and, as this is the most durable of the thatching materials, it is almost always used when thatching new properties. It has been known for a thatched roof utilising water reed to last anywhere between 50 – 60 years, but some have lasted much longer than this. Water reed can be used, and is predominantly used, on new thatched roofs, but it can also be used on existing thatched roofs too.  

Water reed is a grass which grows in wetland areas, to lengths that are dependent on the nutrients available. This reed is cut during winter, before the new shoots appear, and they are stacked loosely to dry before being cleaned and bundled and sorted into differing lengths to be used by thatchers. Water reed roofs can be styled to look like a combed straw roof, but generally forms sharper edges to the eave, gable, and hips. 

Long Straw 

Long straw was used predominantly throughout regions the regions of Dorset and northwards, but now it is mainly used in East Anglia. This type of thatching is usually distinguishable from other thatching materials as it has long lengths of straw visible on the surface and has a general appearance of having been poured on, unlike water reed or combed wheat reed. 

Long straw is threshed to only remove the grain, which leaves a straw which is tangled and broken and needs further preparation before it can be used for thatching. These roofs have a slightly shaggier finish and commonly has stick work around the eaves and gables, which are cut to form a neat edge. 

Combed Wheat Reed (Combed Cereal Straw) 

Combed wheat reed, or combed cereal straw, takes its name from the processed material itself, as the straw has been threshed to remove the grain, but with an attachment which also removes the weeds, leaf, and broken stems. This processed straw is a straight length which resembles a reed, so the roof takes on a smoother appearance, with the eaves and gables cut to form neat, rounded edges. 

This type of thatching is predominantly used in the south and west of the country. 

When Were Thatched Roofs Invented?

Thatched roofs are structures that have been around for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, and there is quite a bit of debate about how far back thatched roofing actually dates. While there are some theories that thatching dates back to the Bronze Age, there is no evidence to suggest this. The earliest documented record of thatched roofing is actually around 700 AD.  

Little is known about thatching back in the eighth and ninth centuries, but it is assumed that thatching a roof with materials such as wild grass was a fairly common occurrence. There are only assumptions that thatching dates back this far, as there is no specific archaeological evidence, but there is evidence that thatching existed in the 11th and 12th centuries. 

It is well-documented that the Normans were known for thatched roofing when they first made their way to the British Isles in the 11th Century and, as they conquered England, they brought that knowledge with them. There are numerous records from both the 12th and 13th centuries that indicated that thatched roofing was being used for a variety of properties. 

The oldest surviving structures with thatched roofing still intact date all the way back to the 14th century. However, from the 13th century, there was a slow decline in the use of thatching for roofs in urban areas, which is most likely due to the risk of fire associated with them back then. Thatched roofing was still popular in rural areas, where properties were further apart, and the risk of spreading fire was reduced. 

By the time the industrial revolution came around, thatching was in decline because there were many other roofing materials that could be used, at a far lower cost. These offered greater availability and were more affordable, so thatch continued to decline. 

However, these days, thatching is rising in popularity as more people are realising the many benefits that it offers. While it is still far easier to spot traditional roofing materials, such as tile and slate, many properties are now sporting thatched roofing. 

Types of Thatched Roofs

There are three main types of thatched roof, which we have gone into detail about above. However, lets take a moment to refresh ourselves on these types.  

First, Water Reed thatching, which is a coarser and more durable thatching material, lasting anywhere from 50 – 60 years on average. Next, we have Long Straw, which is thrashed wheat that provides a very ornate finish, with a life expectancy of around 20 – 30 years. Finally, Combed Wheat Reed, which is derived from the same material as Long Straw, but mechanically straightened and cleaned through a reed comber. This has a life expectancy of around 25 – 40 years. 

Thatched roofs also have a ridge, which is the section on the top of the roof. All ridge work is constructed using Long Straw, regardless of the material used on the rest of the roof, and the ridge generally lasts around 15 – 20 years. 

Check Out Our Thatcher Services

Hopefully after reading the above, you will be far more informed regarding the purpose of thatched roofs, the materials used to thatch a roof, and the long history of thatching in England. If, after reading the above, you are interested in thatching your own roof, you need look no further for assistance than us at the NSMT. 

We are experts in all things thatch, and we provide many thatching services to clients across the UK. We can provide you with a wealth of resources, from conservation and fire prevention to insurance and even apprentice training should you wish to get into the thatching industry. 

We also have a handy Find a Thatcher database, where we list all registered master thatchers in the UK. By using this database, you can find a reliable and skilled thatcher in your area. 

For further assistance from the NSMT, call us on 01530 222954 or email us at info@nsmtltd.co.uk 

Roof Thatchers - National Society of Master Thatchers