Architecture: Conservation: the last straw: If the 'heritage police' win their case, preserving the thatched, chocolate-box cottages of Stoke Abbott will cost villagers a fortune, says Peter Dunn

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EARLIER this year, John Lowe, historic buildings officer for Dorset County Council, slipped into the village of Stoke Abbott in the west of his patch and photographed the making of what you might call 'Straw Wars'. Mr Lowe's picture, which features in a confidential council report to be published in November, shows a pair of listed thatched cottages next to the village pub.

One of these, called 'Gales', has an ageing roof of combed wheat reed straw, rounded in the traditional Dorset style. Its neighbour, 'Mins', has a thatch, laid two years ago by a local craftsman, of imported Turkish water reed, its sharper, leaner slopes dominated by a decorative dogtooth ridge.

The Lowe report, whose contents the Independent revealed to the villagers of Stoke Abbott, says that the new 'Mins' thatch has 'completely destroyed the traditional Dorset appearance' of the cottage. The claim has sent a frisson of excitement through Stoke Abbott.

Martin Poynton, the man who thatched Mins Cottage, says: 'The roof's not Dorset, I agree. But the customers chose what they wanted and water reed has a longer life. It doesn't really matter, does it?' It did to Mrs Poynton, who rang Mr Lowe at his office in Dorchester to give him a piece of her mind. Sarah Cross, who lives in Mins Cottage with her husband Andrew, followed suit. Mrs Cross told Mr Lowe to remove the 'snoop' picture of her home from his secret document forthwith. 'I didn't think this was a Red country,' she says.

After two years of detailed research, no one knows better than Mr Lowe that poking around in the arcane world of English thatching is a risky business. Many of its skilled masters identify proudly with a prime minister called Thatcher. Highly individualistic, forceful and territorial about their village fiefdoms, they are not taking kindly to suggestions that some of their work is betraying the traditions of the country's oldest surviving building craft.

Dorset has 2,443 listed thatched buildings (and 2,000 others unlisted) with distinctive styles that change subtly from one part of the county to another. Increasingly, owners of thatched cottages are finding themselves under pressure - through the stick of listed-building controls and the carrot of low-interest reroofing loans - to return their homes to an officially acceptable time warp. With roofs that need changing every 20 years or so at pounds 12,000 a time, cheap loans can be a powerful incentive to do things the official way.

'Where local traditions affect the appearance of historic buildings, we clearly want to retain this element of the county's history,' says Mr Lowe. 'Local district councils have become increasingly aware of the fact that some thatchers have not stuck to those traditions. I'm not being difficult about this; it's the law. Listed- building consent is there to be used if necessary. If thatchers do destroy the character of a building, it's not something that conservation officers can stand back and do nothing about.

'We're not saying thatchers shouldn't use new techniques on new buildings,' says Mr Lowe, 'but where you've a 15th-century roof very much intact, it should surely be re-thatched in traditional materials.'

Mr Lowe thinks that thatchers should return to the use of combed wheat reed, used since medieval times to give Dorset thatch its characteristic soft, rounded shape. However, many contemporary thatchers prefer water reeds imported from eastern Europe that can be laid in a single coat. Water-reed thatch, they say, lasts longer than traditional English straw thatch, whose quality suffers because it absorbs the harmful nitrates with which farmers smother the land.

The case for combed wheat is not helped by the fact that farmers do not like growing it because, under new EC regulations, they can only use its by-product as chicken feed, where once it had many unregulated subsidiary uses. Sensitive to English summer storms, combed wheat is also quite rare and costs a whopping pounds 400 a ton. Because it needs to be laid in two coats, combed wheat adds a week's work to a reroofing job.

Nevertheless, Mr Lowe has powerful supporters, including Steve Chant, a thatcher for 22 years and secretary of the 21-member Dorset Master Thatchers Association. Mr Chant, who lives in a 17th-century brick rectory at Tincleton, near Dorchester, pays a local farmer to grow him 15 acres of combed wheat each year. 'I've always liked the way our cottages look and want to keep them that way.

'On the other hand, the council's got to find us a regular combed wheat supply of good quality. Who wants to sit at home for six months out of work waiting for some? One or two thatchers are saying: 'John Lowe doesn't even come from this part of the country. He's from the North. How dare he come down here and tell us what we're supposed to do in Dorset?' '

Mr Chant showed me his storage barn. In one corner was a pile of precious combed wheat straw, which he had refused to share with another local thatcher who desperately needed a few bundles to finish a job. Dominating the interior, however, was a mountain of imported Turkish water reed. 'It's for a job I'm doing,' Mr Chant said, unabashed. 'Look, if you came to me and said: 'I've got this thatched cottage; I'd love it done in water reed and I've seen this lovely pattern in East Anglia,' and I said: 'I'm sorry, I can't use water reed because it'll ruin the house,' they'll say: 'Thank you very much, we'll get someone that will.'

'So what I say is: 'If that's what you want, I'll do it for you.' I'm not going to sit at home while someone else is out there doing something I wouldn't do, am I?'

Rod Miller, a master craftsman who has thatched old buildings in Dorset for 30 years and is a major importer of foreign water reed, takes a somewhat baleful view of the combed wheat.

'There's an old saying: if you want to do someone a bad turn leave them a thatched cottage, because they'll always have their hand in their pocket,' he says. 'That's what we have to fight against. People like Mr Lowe are putting the clock back years. I can make a water-reed roof look virtually the same as a wheat-reed roof and I defy any conservation officer to tell the difference from 10 yards away.

'I've a vested interest in water reed, because a reasonably competent thatcher will make a roof that'll give 25-35 years' wear. Other thatchers have a vested interest in wheat reed because they know they can't guarantee it'll last 20 years and the roof will need doing again. One reason I stopped using wheat reed was that I was fed up being held to ransom by farmers putting up their prices, sometimes doubling them each year.

'What they're trying to do is daft, because there won't be enough wheat straw produced to re-thatch every roof that needs doing and so wheat straw prices will literally go through the roof. I'll carry on as I've always done. I think I'll have to take legal advice because what they're trying to do is an attack on civil liberties.'

Can dutiful historic building officers like John Lowe protect our picture-postcard heritage without making small communities feel they are being investigated by conservation police? Mr Lowe stresses the wide consultations he has had on the issue of historically correct thatch with craftsmen, farmers, firemen and botanists over a period of two years.

He was, however, less than pleased that I had invited residents of Stoke Abbott to respond to his criticism of the thatching of Mins Cottage. 'That was a confidential report and you were wrong - unprofessional - to talk to these individuals,' he said, curtly.

Malcom Dodson, a director of Dodson Brothers, thatchers, of Kings Ripton, Cambridgeshire, can tell his West Country brothers a thing or two about standing up to the conservation industry and its long-term consequences.

'We put a ridge on a cottage at Sudborough, in Northamptonshire, about four years ago,' he says. 'Two years later, the council's conservation officer told us it wasn't traditional and had to come off. The case cost us pounds 40,000 at public inquiry, but we won and the owner's still got his ridge.

'The whole point about thatching down the centuries is that it has adapted to change according to the materials available at any one time. The strict conservation approach is wrong. It denies history and holds owners of thatched cottages to ransom, facing them with unbearable costs. They should not be forced to live in museum pieces based on a conservation officer's blinkered notion of history.

'What'll happen is that no one will be able to afford to live in them and they'll either end up as a burden to the state or else they'll fall into ruin, as they've done in the past.'

After 40 years in the business, Mr Dodson says that his work is now under constant surveillance by council officials. 'Every time we're out thatching, a woman officer drives up, parks some distance away, gets out, takes a few photographs and nips back into her car again. Don't you think this is taking conservation a bit too far?'

(Photograph omitted)