Traditional Thatching

Traditional or Otherwise?

Is it me or does there seem to be a widespread use of largely meaningless language on thatching websites.

A cursory look at some sites promise that “only the highest quality locally sourced materials” will be used; another that the thatching will be done with the “finest materials available”; a quote I saw said the Thatchers would use “hand-picked premium quality straw”. Other standout words that are frequently used are ‘Premier’, ‘Bespoke’ and my all time favourite which appears more than any other the word ‘Traditional’.

The dictionary definition of Traditional is “a practice handed down from generation to generation”. I am supposing this means there is a sense of timelessness – that if you could go back to some point in history what was being done then is mirrored in what is being done now.

I recently caught part of one of Ian Hislop’s TV programmes (Olden Days) concerning the British obsession with History – apparently we are world famous for it. We like to look back and not only reminisce but occasionally put a new spin on events; . . . remember when the summers were always hotter . . .

Traditional is not a word that will be found much on my website. This is because I believe it is a much over used and misunderstood word not just in thatching but in other spheres. It doesn’t actually convey any meaningful sentiments to the job of thatching roofs and if it doesn’t why use it?

It’s a word not just used in thatching. How many fish and chip shops have you seen that advertise ‘traditional fish and chips’? I wonder what the reaction would be if you asked “can I have the modern variety and not the traditional?” or if you asked the owners what their definition of traditional is as opposed to non traditional? I’m guessing here that they must use the same variety of potatoes that were used in the past (really!) and the same type of oil (really!) – but why do they no longer wrap them in newspaper . . . is that a break with tradition?

Traditional Thatching

When I used to have a stand at the Belfast Self Build show I appeared in the “Traditional Skills” section along with stone and wood carvers etc. Thinking about it, what we were demonstrating were labour intensive building and construction skills that cannot easily be mass produced, learnt quickly, carried out at speed and most importantly have little or no agreed quality control beyond that of the experience of the practitioner. If this is the case it means that thatching is unlikely to become a mass produced and mainstream building skill.

The problem with the word is people don’t give it a second thought – if it’s traditional it must somehow be good. Traditional is rarely bad. When a quirky historical thatched roof continues to fail after repeated re-thatching in traditional materials and using traditional techniques it is because that is what happens and it is accepted as such.

When it comes to thatching the word traditional is therefore used to convey a sense of unchanged practices – the way things have always been done, the way thatching was carried on in the past, because in the past things (it is assumed) were done properly or correctly – it’s a comfort factor for the thatch owner because he or she believes (that in a fast changing world) there is a continuity and this must be good and it is what all Thatchers should all aspire to. The great difficulty for the Thatcher is replicating the look of the past whilst making sure roofs last going forward.

Advocates of Traditional Thatch rarely give a time in History or a starting point as a reference point to compare the past with now – to do so would tie them down and invite criticism that their ‘golden age’ may not be so golden – so instead they will say such things as Long Straw was the traditional material in this area, or the Thatching tradition in this area would have been this or that material.

Another noticeable trait is most will never acknowledge the different social, economic and political considerations that existed in the past compared with today and how these influenced and determined a particular thatching style or look – to do so would invite criticism that they are not comparing like for like which of course they are not.

Some Traditional thatch advocates can be very selective and focus on a small geographical area or a small number of surviving roofs – often museum properties or roofs which require constant repair and maintenance, but these cost considerations are played down often because there is often grant funding available and they argue costs should not be the fore when discussing the preservation of such historical roofs. Many of these people will at the same time decry the use of more modern thatch materials such as water reed because of its increasing generic use.

It has to be said that thatching techniques and practices HAVE changed – screw fixings are now commonly used which are driven home with cordless drills – yes some Thatchers out of choice will still use the metal spikes but even some of these now come with plastic tops; galvanized steel bars and not hazel ‘sticks’ are almost universally used in the UK on new build thatch. A Thatcher can now buy his scallops, spits, spars or broaches already twisted and plastic spars have been available for about 20 years. Many Thatchers will use bamboo canes or quadrant pieces on the ridge.

When we strip a roof we cover our roofs with lightweight plastic tarpaulins, most Thatchers wear gloves and when we work on building sites we have to wear PPE clothing. A lot of roofs now have fire felt or fire boarding put in place under the thatch. A Thatcher from even as recently as 1965 would find these things completely new. Thatchers are now full time professionals – in the past they would not have been and as such they have to produce the best possible job using the best materials available.

Then there are the materials . . . how many Thatchers practicing their trade today have thatched in heather, marram grass or flax – all materials that were more commonly used in the past, and why has there been a decline in the use of such materials? Studies of old thatch have shown that the straw varieties used today are different. It is said that 85% of all water reed used in the UK now comes from abroad and from places as far away as China and Turkey.

There is also all the ‘outside’ legislation that impinges on thatching. We can no longer work off long pole ladders that run from the ground and instead have to use scaffolding, there is minimum wage legislation, contracts of employment and burning the old thatch can incur a heavy fine . . . . . . .

Thatchers in the past may spent several hours laboriously unloading materials by hand but can now work on one job whilst materials for another are unloaded by fork lift machines without them even having to be there.

Thatching is not immune from the changes in the rest of society and has evolved and will continue to do so.

Finally the question therefore has to be asked do we really need to use the word traditional at all? Are Thatchers not a just doing a long standing established job and does the word ‘Thatching’ not convey to people all they need know about a job that has been practiced for a very long time? I believe it does and I believe using the word traditional is superfluous and unnecessary.