Thatched cottages: when homeowners enjoy clutching at straws

A new thatched roof involves painstaking work and planning.

 
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Thatched cottages:  thatcher Carl Ward with his clients Becky and James Davies and their children, Amy, left, and Ella, at their cottage in Talaton
Gripping reed: thatcher Carl Ward with his clients Becky and James Davies and their children, Amy, left, and Ella, at their cottage in Talaton Photo: CHRISTOPHER JONES
Yarcombe, near Honiton: Four-bedroomed, thatched cottage, with pond and eight acres of wooded grounds �950,000, Jackson-Stops and Staff (Taunton), 01823 325144, www.jackson-stops.co.uk
Yarcombe, near Honiton: Four-bedroomed, thatched cottage, with pond and eight acres of wooded grounds �950,000, Jackson-Stops and Staff (Taunton), 01823 325144, www.jackson-stops.co.uk
Witheridge, near Tiverton: Beautiful thatched longhouse, with five converted holiday cottages in grounds �1.95 million, Knight Frank (Exeter), www.knightfrank.co.uk
Witheridge, near Tiverton: Beautiful thatched longhouse, with five converted holiday cottages in grounds �1.95 million, Knight Frank (Exeter), www.knightfrank.co.uk
Lower Bradley, River Dart: 17th century, grade II listed farmhouse, with 21 acres, 1,000 yards of river frontage �810,000, Savills (Exeter), 01392 455755, www.savills.co.uk
Lower Bradley, River Dart: 17th century, grade II listed farmhouse, with 21 acres, 1,000 yards of river frontage �810,000, Savills (Exeter), 01392 455755, www.savills.co.uk

In the city, it's plumbers who are like gold dust. In the West Country, it's thatchers. "Getting hold of a good one is not easy," says Christine Thomas, who has lived for 10 years in a thatched cottage at Yarcombe, near Honiton. "The waiting-list for a thatcher in this part of the world is 12 to 18 months."

That's absolutely true, says Edwina Wakley, secretary to the Devon and Cornwall Master Thatchers Association (18 members only, admission dependent on inspection of past work).

"To wait a year for a thatcher is quite normal," she says. "In fact, if a thatcher tells you he can start next week, you might want to ask yourself why that is."

In the case of James and Becky Davies, they were able to give Carl Ward plenty of warning that they were going to need a thatching job on their cottage in Talaton, West Devon. Though they might have wished otherwise.

"Unfortunately, their cottage had burnt to the ground," says Carl who went into thatching 30 years ago after leaving school. "So I knew I wasn't going to be needed until most of the re-construction work had been done."

That said, the bulk of re-thatching jobs are due not to the ravages of fire, but to simple wear and tear. And even the recession doesn't seem to have thinned out the crowd of householders wanting their roofs attended to.

"There's still plenty of demand," says Tom Dunbar, who runs a thatching business near Yeovil with colleague Nigel Bunce. "If you rang us tomorrow, we could probably fit you in next summer; spring, at a pinch."

You could, of course, ask one of the other members of the Somerset Master Thatchers Association, except there are even fewer members (eight) than in Devon and Cornwall.

"There just aren't the youngsters coming into the trade," says Charles Chalcraft, a retired Devon thatcher who runs introductory weekend courses for enthusiasts. There are no colleges teaching it, so the best you can do is find a thatcher to take you on as an apprentice. And it takes five years to get qualified."

If ever there was a skills shortage in this country, then, it's in thatching. It is estimated that there are just 350 firms in the entire country, to service between 55,000 and 60,000 thatched houses. And since a high proportion of those houses are heritage listed, their owners are not only forced to stick with their straw roof, but are legally obliged to keep it in good condition.

This doesn't come cheap. With the cost of a complete thatch around £75 to £100 per square foot, you can pay anything up to £25,000 for a complete re-thatch. Mind you, prices are even higher outside the West Country, particularly in East Anglia, where they tend to use imported water reeds from the Continent.

By contrast, the material of choice in the West Country is home-grown, combed wheat reed, which, although cheaper, has a shorter lifespan – 10 to 15 years, rather than 20 to 25. On top of which, the climate is wetter than in Suffolk and Norfolk, and the pitch of the roofs less steep. The result being that a greater amount of rain collects in the thatch and eventually causes the stalks to rot.

"Thatch makes a house more beautiful but it costs a homeowner an extra £2,000 a year on average," says Marjorie Sanders, secretary of the National Society of Master Thatchers.

"It's less painful, of course, if you spend a few hundred pounds each year on replacing small patches, rather than putting it off and then having to spend thousands on a complete re-thatch.

"The only problem is, there's still a shortage of decent combed wheat reed this year, following the disastrous crops in 2007 and 2008. So that's going to push prices up."

There again, nothing compares with the financial loss incurred when your thatched house burns down. The cost to an insurance company of rebuilding a fire-destroyed thatched property is estimated at £400,000, as against £11,000 for a normal cottage.

This is why it's essential to find a specialist insurance firm to cover your chocolate-box home.

"Companies like NFU Mutual, John Albion, Thatchline, even Aviva, will actually advise you on how to prevent a fire," Sanders say.

"The most common cause is a wood-burning stove, allied to an inadequately lined and insulated brick chimney. When people ring and ask about putting a woodburner in a thatched property, I have one word of advice – don't. Not everyone listens."

As a result, there are maybe 50 to 60 thatched-house fires a year. When a straw roof catches light, even if it's been fitted with a fire-retardant membrane, it's not long before the whole house is on fire. This will mean yet another job for the thatchers, come reconstruction time.

But while thatching work may be plentiful, it's not easy.

"You're cold in winter, you're hot in summer and if you don't really love the job, you can't do it," says Somerset-based Simon Willey, who's been a thatcher for 25 years. "Of the four apprentices I've had, only one stuck it out until he was qualified."

As well as requiring physical strength and weather-resistance, thatching also has its dangers. Charles Chalcraft developed farmer's lung, after years of exposure to mould spores in damp thatch. That said, there's not a thatcher who doesn't speak with pride about his craft.

"Basically, we are using skills that date back centuries," says Tom Dunbar. "And there aren't many jobs you can say that about."

  • Somerset Master Thatchers Association, www.somersetmaster thatchers.co.uk

Top 10 tips on thatch

  • Maintenance costs around £2,000 per year
  • Thatch looks lovely and for most people, that’s the most important thing
  • New thatch lasts about15-35 years
  • Lack of upkeep can let in unwelcome visitors such as mice and squirrels
  • It’s essential to keep your chimney clean, properly lined and insulated
  • Bonfires need to be positioned well away from the house
  • Building inspectors and surveyors don’t always know about thatch
  • Fire risk is the same as a normal house but once alight, thatched houses tend to burn to the ground
  • Thatch keeps you warm in winter and cool in summer