The appeal of thatch

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Despite the cost, traditional reed-roofed cottages are more popular than ever. By Graham Norwood

It remains the quintessential countryside scene: an idyllic thatched cottage, as if taken from a chocolate box lid, glinting in the languid sun of a perfect summer's day.

But just beneath the thatch, there lurks controversy. Housing experts are increasingly divided over the merits of thatch in an era where diligent conveyancers and mandatory Home Information Packs and Energy Performance Certificates reveal a property's pros and cons to would-be buyers like never before.

Sue Bushnell, of the Devon branch of buying agency County Homesearch, says she would never advise a client not to purchase a thatched house, but always feels obliged to point out issues associated with them.

"Thatches potentially present an increased fire risk and therefore higher insurance premiums, although they can be protected by a fire retardant application," she says.

"The cost of upkeep and repairs is also a factor, ranging from a few hundred pounds every few years for patching to complete re-thatching every 20 to 30 years. Depending on the materials used, the area and climate this can be around £25,000 for an house," warns Bushnell.

Statistics appear to support her wariness. The National Society of Master Thatchers says 50 to 60 thatched homes have serious fires each year, although it insists many could be avoided by more careful use of open fires by owners. And a new fire alarm aimed at thatch owners will cut insurance premiums by up to 40 per cent, but it costs £600 to install and £150 for annual maintenance.

Yet the biggest financial shock is not insurance but repairs, which can cost up to £1,000 for a small patch of roof.

"The first sign of a problem probably comes with the owner seeing shrinkage of the thatch around a dormer window or as it moves away from roof supports. Sometimes that can be patched or it might mean a complete re-thatch is required," says Robert Shadbolt, a building surveyor and thatch specialist.

But for all that, there are many thatch devotees. The most fervent are the estimated 30,000 existing owners predominantly in the south west, East Anglia and Yorkshire.

John Wilkinson is a conservation architect who, for 36 years, has lived in a former terrace of 17th- century thatched agricultural cottages near Peterborough. He converted them into a large family house which, in 1973, was re-thatched. Now he is about to have the work done again.

"I got about 10 different thatchers at the time to advise me and they said a new one would last about 35 years. That's exactly right," he says.

Wilkinson is having about six inches of old thatch removed from his home, and replaced with about 10 inches of new reed. The re-thatching materials, labour, scaffolding and VAT will cost him almost £30,000.

Like his old roof, the new one will be covered by galvanised netting to deter nesting birds and rodents, but one big fear will remain – the threat of fire.

"We've never had a problem but it's obviously the biggest worry. I always pray for rain on Guy Fawkes' Night," he admits.

But controversy over thatch is not limited to fires and repair costs. Now even the type of reed that is used in the roof is the subject of heated debate. There are three types of material used on Britain's thatches. The most popular is water reed, imported and lasting 50 to 80 years. By contrast, wheat reed lasts only up to 40 years while long straw lasts just 15 to 25 years.

Recently water reed has been imported from eastern Europe where it is easier to source and cheaper to buy than in the Britain, but now conservation quango English Heritage says this foreign reed is changing the traditional appearance of homes. Instead, it wants local council conservation chiefs to insist on domestically-produced wheat reeds, despite their shorter life-spans and now higher prices after poor harvests.

"It's unwarranted interference. The end result is many owners put off repairs because of the cost, reducing the quality of the thatched stock. Is that what English Heritage really wants?" asks one West Country thatcher who wants to remain anonymous.

On top of this, there is concern that new Energy Performance Certificates are too general to measure the energy efficiency of thatch.

Yet despite the disputes, thatched properties remain popular, staying on the market for shorter periods than other homes. "People overlook other shortcomings when they see thatch," says Devon-based estate agent Peter Burnham. "They look at it and go 'wow' – and that's it sold."

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