On Thatching (1 of 2)

 
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Something a little different for you this week.

 
 

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You’ll recall that up until recently there was a huge spruce tree here, 80′ huge and over twice the height of the house. The branches were close enough to almost touch the roof but it was the shade cast by the tree that was doing the most damage. Moss thrives in such conditions, hastening decay in the surface of the thatch.

 
 

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Shady enough for ferns to grow, without soil, above the south facing slope

 

Thatching is an ancient method of roof construction, the weaving together of whatever vegetation was locally available: from palm leaves in the tropics to straw and water reed in the UK. Ironically it was originally used because it was cheap, often the only roofing material realistically available for the average rural dweller. Sadly it is cheap no longer. Thatching is a labour intensive business and in today’s world we know what that means.

To resurface just one side of our roof would leave us with little change from £10,000. Thankfully there’s a bit of time to save up the pennies, we have about 15 years of life left in it, providing the thatch is properly maintained and has sufficient air circulation. Hence the spruce tree having to come down. Usually it’s the ridge, the top edge of the roof, which is the first to go. It’s a smaller job but ours will need attention in 3-5 years. Still, better than we had feared so another ‘phew’.

 
 

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Post industrial revolution, with the population moving increasingly toward living in towns, thatching declined along with the number of thatchers. The last 30 years has seen something of a resurgence. There are approximately 60,000 thatched properties in the UK and 1000 full time thatchers, driven by renewed interest in the preservation of historic buildings, a revival of traditional crafts and the use of more sustainable building materials. All good stuff.

Thatch is a natural insulator. It helps to keep the house warm in winter and cool in summer. On the negative side it’s prone to damage from birds, who nick the straw for their nests or burrow into it for grubs. Mice move in looking for wheat grain and a warm place to spend the night. And how can we overlook the attentions of those wretched squirrels, for whom the roof seems to provide an ideal place to bury their nuts.

 
 

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Spars and yelms

 

Our previous cottage was also a thatch. We had renovation work done there too, on a much larger scale than here. Sharing your home with builders for over a year is no mean feat. At one point, while replacing the oak beam that held the house up in lieu of foundations, the lower half of one wall had to be entirely removed. On Christmas Day, had we so desired, we could have done an Indiana Jones roll from inside the house to the path outside without need of a door. Birds flew through the sitting room and the radiator had icicles hanging from its severed pipe.

In that part of England it was common practice, rare in Devon, to cover the whole roof with chicken wire. Come Spring, a wren took up residence. She was just small enough to fit through the holes in the mesh and, suitably ensconced, she hollowed a nest out of the straw. And what a smart move that turned out to be for not only was the wren superbly protected from predators but she, and later her babies, had lunch on tap. The builders would feed them with pieces of their sandwiches, poking bits up through the gaps in the wire.

 
 

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But I digress.

The back of our current roof faces north and thus is more or less permanently in shade. Moss growth here was quite extensive.. along with more ferns! The moss is removed by combing the straw with a plastic rake.

 
 

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Work in progress

 

I can’t even begin to describe the mess. Heaps and heaps of moss, rotten straw and dirt fall off the roof to smother everything down below. Not least anyone foolhardy enough to be walking underneath. Ladders propped on the walls of the terraces and big boots trampling through the borders. Enough to give the poor gardener apoplexy.

 
 

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My ginger lily is under there somewhere!!

 
 
 
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2017-10-24T19:32:43+00:00 November 3rd, 2015|Tags: |

70 Comments

  1. Gillian November 3, 2015 at 5:49 pm - Reply

    It is lovely to have work done on our homes and we all probably all start off feeling positive but in the end you just want your home back and the builders (however nice) to go away. You have my sympathy. It always looks worse before it gets better. It will be worth the mess now of that I am sure!

    • Jessica November 4, 2015 at 10:52 am - Reply

      Having the builders in for a year was a bit of a nightmare. It was the kind of project where doing one thing kicks off something else. It’s not uncommon in old properties, where often you don’t know what you are going to find when walls come down and floors come up.

  2. Jayne Hill November 3, 2015 at 5:57 pm - Reply

    Big job, but beautiful. Virtually no thatch in this part of the world (a tad too damp) but when we were down south I remember a friend having to wait over 12 months for her chosen thatcher to be able to schedule her repairs.

    North side looks so much better from being raked, sorry about all the mess in your borders – but it will all make fabulous compost.

    Is your Turf Toe recovered yet?

    • Jessica November 4, 2015 at 10:56 am - Reply

      Too damp here too really, there are a lot of very green roofs around and not the kind one plants up with succulents. There was so much of the moss we tipped it down the hill where it will join the leaf mould in the woodland. Turf Toe is not recovering at all and I believe I have myself to blame. Thank you for asking though!

  3. Freda November 3, 2015 at 6:01 pm - Reply

    I am a bit mean to say it Jessica – but the scale of your house maintenance jobs makes me feel that mine are do-able after all! Good luck!

    • Jessica November 4, 2015 at 11:01 am - Reply

      We have taken on a lot, I wish I’d known quite how much before we signed the dotted line! But every now and then something happens that convinces me that it will (one day) be worth it. Right now it is seeing the woodland open up with the leaves coming off the trees. Last year, because other trees and hedges were blocking the view, we weren’t aware of any of it.

  4. Caro November 3, 2015 at 6:04 pm - Reply

    Well, you live and learn! You’ve just completely realigned my concept of a chocolate box cottage – mice? squirrels? yikes! Even if the insulation is second to none. Pity about the dirt in the raked off moss – you could have done a nice sideline in moss for christmas wreaths ….

    • Jessica November 4, 2015 at 11:03 am - Reply

      And spiders.. I forgot about them. They live in the roof space on the underside of the thatch but if there are any gaps in the ceiling..

  5. Bumbleandme November 3, 2015 at 6:46 pm - Reply

    I hope the ginger likely survives! We too have ferns growing from our chimney stack. I can’t imagine it’s much fun removing miss from straw, it was bad enough scraping it off our slate tiled roof. Mind you it’ll look fab when it’s finished and give you some more time to win the lottery! X

    • Jessica November 4, 2015 at 11:08 am - Reply

      I’m glad I’m not the only one with a lottery win providing the foundation to the financial plan! The kitchen extension has a slate tile roof but the problem there has been solved for us. A wren has discovered that there is something tasty living underneath and spent the whole summer excavating. The moss dropped conveniently into the gutters where it could be collected up. Simples!

  6. Julie November 3, 2015 at 6:50 pm - Reply

    You had me engrossed from start to finish, really interesting post and lovely photos as always. The little wren had the right idea, even burly builders have a kind heart.

    • Jessica November 4, 2015 at 11:09 am - Reply

      Thanks Julie. I tried to get the builders to switch to wholemeal bread for the sake of the wrens but they wouldn’t hear of it 🙂

  7. frayed at the edge November 3, 2015 at 6:58 pm - Reply

    At least it is fairly soft stuff coming off ……. when I had only had my car for 5 months, a slate came off the roof in a storm and did quite a lot of damage to it!!

    • Jessica November 4, 2015 at 11:10 am - Reply

      Ouch!

  8. CJ November 3, 2015 at 9:03 pm - Reply

    Oh dear, I do feel for you with the mess (and of course the expense), but oh there is no roof so lovely as thatch, it’s gorgeous. And it’s good that you’re keeping it so well maintained. CJ xx

    • Jessica November 4, 2015 at 11:13 am - Reply

      If we can delay the big bill with a bit of maintenance here and there it will be worth it. But it does look so much better now that it’s done. Pictures next post.

  9. Amy November 3, 2015 at 9:41 pm - Reply

    I can only imagine a thatched roof (lovely) – or, for that matter, the cleanup after the job is done (major)! Love the tale about the wren 🙂 I’m afraid we raise pigeons and sparrows in our tile roof… all those lovely little arches can make tiny roofs for bird nests…

    • Jessica November 4, 2015 at 11:18 am - Reply

      The thatchers were very good and cleaned up every last scrap of the mess, so we didn’t have to look at it for long! It was the big boots and ladders that were the most stressful. It’s a lovely thought, having birds nesting in the roof, but I hope they’re not too messy. There were house martins nesting here under the eves and the mess down the wall and on the ground underneath was horrendous.

  10. Diana Studer November 3, 2015 at 10:35 pm - Reply

    did you keep the ferns?
    Or do you have FAR too many?

    • Jessica November 4, 2015 at 11:18 am - Reply

      Far, far, FAR too many!

  11. Kris P November 4, 2015 at 1:00 am - Reply

    A thatched roof speaks of fairy tales to me – I can’t say I’ve ever seen one in California, or elsewhere in the US for that matter. The fairy tale illusion has been tarnished a bit by your story, although I do see charm in the ferns and moss growing on the roof and the birds taking up residence there that you, quite reasonably, perhaps cannot. However, the bill for full-scale re-thatching made me wince – but then every fairy tale has its evil witch or demon.

    • Jessica November 4, 2015 at 11:23 am - Reply

      Everything has a price on it, doesn’t it. But fifteen years is a lot better than we were thinking. It has needed some repair (next post), but if we can keep going like this for a bit it will be fine.

  12. Beth @ PlantPostings November 4, 2015 at 4:26 am - Reply

    Phew, indeed! I love the idea of a thatched roof. Doubtless many of my ancestors had them, which is a comforting and fun thought. 🙂 Thanks for the information, the lovely photos, and your stories!

    • Jessica November 4, 2015 at 11:29 am - Reply

      It always looks so cosy, living under a thick bed of straw, even if the reality of a cold winter’s night is different! But at least this year we’ll be able to add the coil of smoke rising from the chimney to the scene.

  13. Brian Skeys November 4, 2015 at 7:28 am - Reply

    We have a thatched cottage near us which has recently changed hands. The large conifer tree in the soon came down followed by the thatcher to replace the ridge. Builders are NEVER good news for gardeners!

    • Jessica November 4, 2015 at 11:32 am - Reply

      They are most definitely not. And there is a limit to the number of times you can ask them to watch their feet. In reality though, these guys were really good and very little damage was done. That was another ‘phew’!

  14. Christina November 4, 2015 at 7:53 am - Reply

    A huge investment in time and money but with a beautiful result, I hadn’t thought about the sustainability of thatch before (I must be dim!) I also hadn’t realised that damp and moss were an issue. With the return of people wanting more sustainable building materials, is there an increase in the number of new houses being thatched?

    • Jessica November 4, 2015 at 11:38 am - Reply

      I read an article from The Guardian while researching for the post which suggested that in certain places, Dorset for memory, there is a requirement to build a certain proportion of new houses with thatched roofs. I understood this was more to protect the traditional appearance of the villages than sustainability but it is a good thing to do nevertheless.

  15. Sam November 4, 2015 at 10:00 am - Reply

    I agree with Brian! Builders and gardens don’t mix. I caught one sitting on the low wall here with his size 11s firmly plonked on top of two prized plants earlier in the summer. He couldn’t understand why I was so cross. How fascinating to see the moss being raked off – what a difference. Really interesting post.

    • Jessica November 4, 2015 at 11:43 am - Reply

      Thanks Sam. Having builders in the garden is a huge problem and very stressful. The number of times I’ve removed jackets just slung across borders and various pieces of heavy equipment.. we do try to define no-go areas before they start and the people we’ve worked with on a previous occasion do tend to respect them, especially if they’ve witnessed full tantrum mode!

  16. sustainablemum November 4, 2015 at 10:19 am - Reply

    I love watching Thatchers at work. The village my grandparents where used to live (in Wiltshire) the majority of the houses were thatched at that time, there was always a house being worked on when we went to visit :). They are expensive roofs to maintain which is ironic as they were the cheaper option at the time of building! I guess it is partly due to the grain we grow now, which is not suitable for thatching as the stalks are too short, so it has become a specialist grain putting the price up, not good for the you :(. Hope your garden recovers.

    • Jessica November 4, 2015 at 11:47 am - Reply

      That’s an interesting point about the grain and not something I’d realised before. The garden hasn’t suffered nearly as much damage as I’d feared, although I’d planted lots of bulbs in the terraces the weekend before and I did see some boots on top of those. Hopefully they will still come up. The wire cages they’re buried in should have helped to protect them too.

  17. justjilluk November 4, 2015 at 11:47 am - Reply

    Enjoyed reading – as always. Fascinating and funny.

    • Jessica November 4, 2015 at 11:49 am - Reply

      Thanks Jill. Hope you’re feeling better?

  18. Linda P. November 4, 2015 at 1:09 pm - Reply

    I’ve been reading your articles from September to date and realise how much work has been done in that time to keep the cottage in good order as well the gardening. What a lot of progress has been made! Reading about the activity all in one go and seeing photos of the plants and flowers has been very enjoyable, but thought-provoking. We’ve got our own maintenance work to do on the Italian house which involves scaffolding (removing and replacing guttering, painting external walls etc.) not to mention reinforcing old roof beams. The turf toe sounds painful so hope you’ve now recovered from the problem.

    • Jessica November 4, 2015 at 10:06 pm - Reply

      House maintenance feels as though it never ends sometimes doesn’t it! We’ve had a bit of a push over autumn to get a few jobs done, spurred on by reports of a coming cold winter. I’m so glad the chimney is now sorted. At least it means we can have a warming fire.

  19. Vera November 4, 2015 at 1:31 pm - Reply

    Never understood why you cut that tree down, but now I do….and even though those ferns look lovely I presume that they have got to go as well. I have always loved thatched cottages, so pretty, but so costly to maintain the thatch. But lets hope that your thatch goes on for ages yet……..

    • Jessica November 4, 2015 at 10:09 pm - Reply

      Cutting down the tree will certainly help. I don’t like removing trees but sometimes there’s no realistic alternative. It should never have been allowed to grow that big. Perhaps, given that the house has been here for centuries, it should never have been planted in the first place.

  20. AnnetteM November 4, 2015 at 2:40 pm - Reply

    Glad you can put off the big bill for a while. My parents had a thatched cottage at one time; it used to be the village poor house I believe. In fact it was still called Poor Cottage. They bought it as a really run down cottage and they renovated it themselves while living in a caravan in the garden. I am ashamed to say I was mostly away from home and so didn’t help as much as I should have. Anyway they had to sell it eventually as the roof was too expensive to replace and they certainly couldn’t afford any house insurance which is very expensive for a thatched property. A couple of doctors bought it and it is now a really fantastic property. On a different subject ,we even have moss on our slate roof – great big balls of it, which Mike has to hit off by leaning out of the window with a long pole!

    • Jessica November 4, 2015 at 10:21 pm - Reply

      It’s sad that your parents had to sell their house but I can quite understand why. Despite the chocolate box appeal a lot of people are put off buying them when they look at the expense. Insurance is not so bad these days, there are specialist companies prepared to take it on, although there are strict conditions attached, like getting the chimney swept every year. Even though we haven’t used the chimney up to now we’ve still had to get it swept. Our sweep takes longer to drink his coffee than he does to do the job!

      • AnnetteM November 5, 2015 at 9:00 am - Reply

        But I don’t suppose your sweep charges accordingly – oh well, if it keeps the insurance down that is great.

        • Jessica November 5, 2015 at 10:46 am - Reply

          No, he doesn’t!
          The insurance implications go further than just the premium. Apparently if the house were to burn down, and we hadn’t followed the conditions to the letter, they could refuse to pay out. Even if the fire hadn’t started in the chimney.

  21. Henriët November 4, 2015 at 3:00 pm - Reply

    I do hope the thatcher isn’t putting those ears of grain into your roof – more food for all your varied livestock! Or what?

    • Jessica November 4, 2015 at 10:26 pm - Reply

      I was looking at the pictures (tomorrow’s post) to see if I could spot the grains, but I can’t see whether he took them off or not. Maybe that’s why I can hear the pitter patter of little feet above my study ceiling..

  22. FlowerAlley November 4, 2015 at 3:56 pm - Reply

    This is fascinating!!! Thank you so much for sharing this information and photos. I love to learn unusual things. I have never seen a real thatched roof before. I hope the poor little ferns were relocated.

    • Jessica November 4, 2015 at 10:29 pm - Reply

      I find it fascinating too. In the last house we had the ridge and one side of the roof re-thatched. I took the week off work just to camp out on the lawn and watch.

  23. Cathy November 4, 2015 at 5:18 pm - Reply

    A really interesting post, Jessica – the £10,000 cost of rethatching is mind boggling and certainly puts things into perspective. I suppose one of the advantages of doing all the work yourself, as we did, is that everything mishap is your own fault – although I don’t suppose we’d have tackled thatching if we had a thatched cottage… 😉 We used reclaimed roof tiles, which in reality should be considered sustainable as they last ‘for ever’ unless you break them. I wonder what will be in Part 2?

    • Jessica November 4, 2015 at 10:37 pm - Reply

      This evening I’ve been watching a series of YouTube videos of Monty Don following three people attempting to learn thatching over six weeks.. the usual apprenticeship is four years. Predictably enough, and despite their initial confidence, they didn’t do particularly well. It’s quite a challenge. And needs considerably more stamina and muscle power than I’ll ever have.

  24. Anne Wheaton November 4, 2015 at 6:51 pm - Reply

    On the plus side, you don’t have to worry about blocked gutters. What a difference it makes raking off the moss; I wish it was as easy to get rid of the moss in our lawn.

    • Jessica November 4, 2015 at 10:40 pm - Reply

      I think our lawn is pretty well all moss, it doesn’t only grow on the roof!

  25. homeslip November 4, 2015 at 7:29 pm - Reply

    I did enjoy reading this and your photos are so good Jessica. One of the oldest houses in Sussex is in our new hamlet and it is currently being rethatched. The scaffolding is now down and it looks stunning. I was in our roof space today (taking advantage of the pest controller’s ladder) and was very pleased to see for myself that our roof is in very good shape. It was thoroughly overhauled about 15 years ago. We need to bear that in mind when faced with the bills for a new boiler, rewiring the whole cottage and cutting the hedges – all jobs quoted for today – eek!

    • Jessica November 4, 2015 at 10:46 pm - Reply

      They do look beautiful when they’re first done and all golden! It’s a shame the straw weathers so quickly. The thatcher told us the tale of a client who was so determined to keep the straw looking new he had the whole roof sprayed with some sort of water repellent. It didn’t work and cost him a fortune.

  26. Linda November 5, 2015 at 12:32 am - Reply

    Hi Jessica….
    I always learn something on my visits here….
    I think it is really cool that you actually LIVE in that darling cottage!
    Cheers!
    Linda :o)

    • Jessica November 5, 2015 at 10:26 am - Reply

      For all their drawbacks I do have a bit of a soft spot for thatch, must have, having had two! Thanks Linda.

  27. Linda November 5, 2015 at 1:54 am - Reply

    All I can say is “wow”! A lot of work to create and maintain that charm.

    • Jessica November 5, 2015 at 10:28 am - Reply

      What annoys me most is the bird and animal damage, especially as there’s not a lot that can be done about it!

  28. Sarah Shoesmith November 5, 2015 at 10:33 am - Reply

    How great that you have not been put off by the hardcore renovations and have started on more work. I guess this seems like a walk in the park compared with having builders in for 1 year. I love watching thatchers – such craftspeople.

    • Jessica November 5, 2015 at 10:51 am - Reply

      It’s swings and roundabouts. At least last time there was day to day evidence of progress and things moving forward. Well, mostly! But this time we’re doing more of the work ourselves. It’s a lot cheaper, but slow. Much more frustrating!

  29. Josephine November 5, 2015 at 5:16 pm - Reply

    Thatched roofs, quintessentially English, and always remind me of storybook tales.
    On my recent visit home, we took pictures of several, amazing too look at, but yes, expensive to maintain.
    Yours is incredible !
    ~Jo

    • Jessica November 5, 2015 at 10:58 pm - Reply

      I’m glad you were able to take some time out and relax a bit on your trip. Look forward to seeing more of the pictures on your blog. Thanks Jo.

  30. welshhillsagain November 5, 2015 at 11:14 pm - Reply

    So often reading about your old house strikes a chord. Internally our houses are quite similar I think both in age and style. This is one area of difference. Our house is slated. We had the front elevation reroofed a few years ago. Inevitably the slates were a small version not used for a couple of hundred years so getting additional ones where we needed them was quite a palaver. I love our house dearly but sometimes I wonder whether our next house might not be a grand designs type new one…

    • Jessica November 5, 2015 at 11:32 pm - Reply

      Lately I’ve been thinking the same about the next house. Underfloor heating would be rather nice.. I tried to get it in the last house but they said they’d have to dig down so far it might undermine the walls, given that there were no foundations. Big structural glass windows too.. rather than the tiny cottage ones. With a view across the sea.. OK, lottery win time (again!).

  31. Island Threads November 6, 2015 at 6:43 pm - Reply

    oh poor you, still better done than left, so if the back of the house faces north, the precipitous slope faces south? if so that at least is good for sun, up here the material for thatch is heather, calluna vulgaris, before the 20thC it was used to stuff mattresses too. now off to read part 2, Frances

    • Jessica November 6, 2015 at 11:05 pm - Reply

      Fascinating Frances, I wonder how long the heather lasted before it had to be replaced? Yes, the slope faces south, it and the terraces are about the only bit of sunny space I have.

  32. CherryPie November 7, 2015 at 11:13 pm - Reply

    I love the degressional sweet tale about the Wren 🙂

    • Jessica November 8, 2015 at 9:28 pm - Reply

      Yes, I rather miss it. She came back the following year too.

  33. hoov November 12, 2015 at 1:03 am - Reply

    So, when it is time to completely redo the roof, all the thatch can be composted on site? That is certainly “sustainable”, to use the current buzz word. Here the big pile of asphalt shingles goes off to the landfill. Our roof is tile–supposed to last 80 years, but not compostable.

    When I did some university work in the UK in the 90s I noticed some areas had wire netting over the thatched roofs–wondered about that. Fascinating post, thanks.

    • Jessica November 12, 2015 at 9:40 am - Reply

      Certainly compostable, whether on site is a moot point. At our last cottage they took it away, there was just nowhere to store it. It’s amazing how much of the stuff actually comes off. Here, maybe there would be enough space but whether we’d want to look at the ginormous pile while it rots away I don’t know. I read somewhere recently that apparently the wire mesh itself accelerates the decay by trapping moist air, but it did seem to stop the birds and squirrels. It does seem to be a regional thing. Thanks Hoov.

  34. Chloris November 13, 2015 at 9:11 am - Reply

    A thatched roof is so pretty, but I had no idea how expensive they are to redo. They are done with reeds here as we are near Norfolk and I believe that is even dearer.

    • Jessica November 13, 2015 at 11:30 pm - Reply

      I think you’re right, although reed lasts longer so perhaps it all evens out.

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