Recently the Great Barn at Home Farm was thatched…actually it was an interim renovation as it had been completely re-thatched in the early 1980s with reed. Reed thatching tends to last at least 50 years but will need some occasional maintenance which may in fact make it last a lot longer. So this interim thatching was a little late but certainly not too late.
Mostly thrashed wheat straw was used in the shires including Cambridgeshire. It generally does not last as long as reed, maybe 15-25 years. Then there is the wheat reed (which in fact is long straw wheat varieties with the leaves stripped from the stems), this will last 20-30 years and also of course the water reed which can last up to 50 years or maybe a bit longer depending on if it’s been maintained on a regular basis.
The ridge can be made of straw but it’s preferable to use sedge as this is much more hard wearing. There are many other materials used for thatching depending on which part of the country you may live in- heather, sods, flax, broom and others are suitable. The old fashioned fixing method is iron pins initially then bent hazel rods.
The tools are fairly simple- beating paddles, shears, hammers of all descriptions and ladders. When maintaining the thatch (certainly with water reed) where there are areas that are soft more new reed is inserted.
On the Great Barn sedge was used for the ridge which was then fixed down with bent hazel rods and then trimmed.
Once the whole Great Barn roof had been renovated it was time to add the modern rabbit netting which has to be put on to stop the birds pulling the thatch apart as they quite like nesting in it.
It’s interesting to note that the big estates preferred to use water reed and I guess any well-to-do gentleman with a fine house would have used the same. It was only the ordinary houses that used wheat straw and certainly many of the farm houses and cottages were thatched, they even thatched the hay and wheat ricks. A good indication as to whether a house or cottage was thatched is to look at the roof pitch… the steeper the pitch the more likely it was thatched.