The appeal of thatch

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

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."

Discover more property articles at Homes and Property
Property search
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Client Services Assistant

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Client Services Assistant is ...

Recruitment Genius: Junior / Senior Sales Broker - OTE £100,000

£20000 - £100000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportuni...

Recruitment Genius: Duty Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Duty Manager is required to join one of the ...

Recruitment Genius: Team Leader

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Team Leader is required to join one of the l...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor