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  Inside Out - South West of England: Monday January 12, 2004

ROOFTOP BREADBIN

Thatched cottage
Ancient thatch results in bread from the roof

There are just over 200 houses left in the country that can boast of having their bread bin in the roof - strange but true.

Inside Out reveals all.

John Letts is an archeobotanist with a passion for thatch and wheat.

He has recently been working with the National Trust at their Holnicote Estate, Exmoor on a unique project.

John Letts
John Letts' passion for thatch reaped tasty reward

They all hope that grain from the thatching straw from the estate properties may be sold in National Trust shops to bake an equally unique type of bread.

There are only about 225 -250 houses left in the country which have their original base coat of thatch, smoke-blackened from the open fires of five centuries ago, and because it's never been removed it's a perfect relic of that time.

John Letts recovered a small amount of the dead medieval grain remaining in the roofs he inspected and took them to the Gene Centre in Norwich to search for contemporary equivalents.

He then grew a quantity of today's seed at the Holnicote Estate with interesting results.

The project, in collaboration with Sandy Boyd - the National Trust's food marketing expert - made use of both the straw for estate house thatching and milled flour from Cotehele Mill in Cornwall - also National Trust.

The proof of the pudding, well - the bread, was brought together by the Blue Mango bakery in Truro with the baking of the finest loaf.

But, what is thatching?

Thatching
Only a few hundred thatchers remain in the country today

The use of thatch for roofing emerged from the Bronze Age with thatched cottages and farm buildings became the norm in rural Britain for over a millennium.

It was common practice in those days for buildings to use lightweight, irregular materials, such as wattle and daub walls, and cruck beams. These structures could not take the weight of any heavier roofing material other than thatch.

In those early times, people would only be able to use what materials they could source locally. This meant materials as varied as broom, sedge, sallow, flax, grass, and straw were commonly used.

The use of wheat straw in the south of England was most widespread as reeds were in East Anglia.

But whilst Norfolk reed was particularly prized by thatchers, in northern England and Scotland heather was more commonly used.

Inside a thatched roof
All elements of the thatching are made of natural materials

For economic reasons, thatch was predominantly used by the poor - only occasionally were the materials used on larger houses.

The famous Norman Castle at Pevensey in Sussex was one example of a larger building, when, in 1300, six acres of local rushes were bought from the marshes to roof the hall and chambers.

The demise of thatching was largely due to the advent of improved transportation. The emergent railway network in the Victorian era meant that cheap slate from Wales became easily available all over Britain resulting in buildings being constructed of stronger materials.

The onslaught of combine harvesters had much to answer for too. With a far shorter cut, the wheat straw became unusable for anything other than grain production.

So how do you thatch?

The three main thatching materials in use today are water reed (Norfolk Reed), longstraw and combed wheat reed.

Sedge, from wetland areas, is also used extensively in ridging to bind the main thatch at the apex [see thatching terms].

Combed wheat reed, or 'Devon' reed is predominantly used in the south and west of the country. Although very similar in appearance to water reed, it is in fact straw.

Thatching
Thatching is a very labour intensive process

The thatch is initially tied into bundles, laid on the roof beams as an underlayer and secured with hazel or withy rods. An upper layer is laid over that underlayer, and a final reinforcing layer added along the ridgeline.

The wheat reed is dressed into shape with a legget [see thatching terms] onto the roof. However, as with longstraw, it is not necessary to remove all the existing material from a roof prior to re-thatching.

The thatcher will usually leave his individual "signature" or decorative feature on the ridgeline as a very personal note of his or her craft.

Longevity

Although there are national average figures quoted for the longevity of each type of material, these are of little use as judgments on performance - or likely performance. This can only be made in individual circumstances.

Bread - the end result of John's labours
A heart and tum warming end to the search for ancient grain from the roof

The ridge of a thatched roof bears the brunt of the weather and, as the fixings are external, it requires attention on average every 10 to 15 years

The material used for the ridge is usually the same as that used for the main coatwork [see thatching terms], however, water reed is too stiff and brittle.

The performance of thatch depends on many factors such as roof shape and design, the pitch and its position (geographically and topographically), the quality of the material and undoubtedly, the high degree of skill of the thatcher.

Do you know your
Biddle from your Stalch,
or your Legget from your Spit
find out here

See also ...

Inside Out: South West
More great stories

On bbc.co.uk
BBC Nature and the Environment

On the rest of the web
The National Society of Master Thatchers
Building Conservation
Thatching in the 21st Century
Living with thatch
The Arboricultural Association

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external websites

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