Thatching

Toad Hole Cottage has seen some changes!

It was probably last rethatched in the late 1940s or 50s. Then, the cottage belonged to the Boardman family, who lived at How Hill, near Ludham, and the cottage had been used as a children’s play house. Before that it was a marshman’s cottage, lived in by generations of marsh families since it was built, probably between about 1780 and 1820. Now it’s our/the Broads Authority’s visitor centre at How Hill National Nature Reserve.

So how much has the thatching process changed? Not very much. The materials are local, the thatchers are local, the processes are nearly all traditional and nearly all the work is done using hand tools. Passing by, the only 21st-century intrusions you might hear are the sound of a modified electric hedge-cutter (though they don’t use it for hedge-cutting) and the odd snatch of music from Heart. The occasional bark from Axel the dog is entirely traditional. Visually, the scaffolding is an innovation – in the old days most work was done from ladders.

Repairs were probably last done at Toad Hole in the 1990s and it had a new ridge in 2005. This time it has been completely rethatched by Richard Haughton of Broadland Thatchers, who began thatching in 1995. He started out by helping a thatcher, encouraged by his father (who was not a thatcher). When he started working independently he had a more experienced man to help him do the ridge along the top and he gradually developed a business as people saw his rooves, especially at Martham. Now he has two years’ work within an eight-mile radius of home.

At Toad Hole Richard has worked with Charlie Tedder – they’ve worked together for 12 years. They’ve been assisted by an apprentice, Toban Roberts. Some thatchers work on their own, perhaps with someone to get the reed up to the roof initially. It’s still hard work for the experienced thatchers as well as for the apprentices, just as it was hundreds of years ago and it doesn’t suit everyone.

The reed part of a roof lasts 60-70 years, while the ridge lasts about 15 years. Good quality, hard reed lasts the longest. The design of a roof also affects how long it lasts, for instance water may get in around windows, making earlier repair or replacement necessary. Sedge, a flexible plant, is used for bending over to make the ridge. Here, the ridge has a layer of straw to bulk it out, then sedge, another traditional method.

Reed is harvested in the winter, sedge from about March to August. Broads reed and sedge are usually cut each year or every other year. The reed for Toad Hole was cut at West Somerton and Martham North and South Broads, at the end of February and the beginning of March, so it looks very fresh, with some green visible. It doesn’t have to be fresh though – provided they are kept dry, reed and sedge for thatching can be about 10 years old and still make a good roof. On a lovely morning at the beginning of March the thatch is damp from dew and smells like damp straw. The reed was cut by Richard Starling, of the Broads Reed and Sedge Cutters Association, who supplies may of the local thatchers.

It’s been four-and-a-half to five days’ work to rethatch Toad Hole. The weather can make a difference. You can ridge in poor weather and do the patterning but you can’t thatch. Reed has to be dry when you put it on or the roof will be rotten in five or six years. The patterning is done with local willow and hazel. Willow takes 12 months to grow to be suitable for thatching use, hazel takes seven years. The materials for the roof come from the landscape around us, so it’s not surprising that the cottage and others like it blend in so well, they are part of the landscape.

The thatchers have used about 380 bundles of reed and about 120 bundles of sedge for Toad Hole. Richard Haughton buys 30-40,000 bundles of reed a year for his own use; about 1,800 of these are Norfolk reed, the rest usually come from Ukraine. He stores the reed until it’s needed. Thatchers use about a bundle of reed per square foot of roof. The reed cost £2.60-£2.70 per bundle and the sedge cost £2.30 per bundle. A thatched roof is now reckoned to represent five per cent of the value of a house; it used to be 10 per cent.

In the early stages of the work a roof can look a bit wild (a rake and hay fork are to hand on the scaffolding) and a tool called a leggat can be used to level reed on a roof. Sometimes it’s hard to believe that the final thatch will be neat and trim. The reed is held in place by large metal pins called thatching irons. The ridge or cap looks ragged before all is in place and it’s trimmed with the hedge-cutter and the thatch is brushed. A cabbage knife comes in handy for any small bits of cutting, too.

In the final stages the apprentice is down on the ground, stripping the bark off pieces of hazel with a large knife, while the two thatchers are working on pinning the ridge, using the hazel sticks bent over like pins to make a pattern. At Toad Hole they’ve made a lattice pattern of five squares. Sometimes they do four. They do the decoration as people want, using the parts of a hammer for measurements – though with more than one thatcher you do need to use the same type of hammer. The final stage is to put the wire over the thatch and do the cement fillets, which hold everything together round the chimney stack.

Now Toad Hole looks like a story-book picture of a thatched cottage, as they all do when newly thatched. Do you think the work will be done in the same way next time? The Broads Authority encourages the use of thatch as a roofing material. It’s sustainable, and reed and sedge cutting are part of managing the Broads marshes, and thatch is practical as well as picturesque – warm in winter and cool in summer. But most importantly the thatchers have created something beautiful from the landscape around us.

More info

Read about the reed and sedge industry

To see Toad Hole Cottage and a collection of marsh tools
Explore www.VisitTheBroads.co.uk for details

If you’d like to find out more about the history of the Broads
Visit the Museum of the Broads at Stalham www.museumofthebroads.org.uk

If you’re interested in visits for school groups, with the chance to have a go at thatching
Get in touch with The Environmental Study Centre for the Norfolk Broads at How Hill www.howhilltrust.org.uk

If you’re a homeowner, a thatcher, a builder or anyone else wanting to know more about reed and sedge for roofing
Find out more from the Broads Reed and Sedge Cutters Association at www.norfolkreed.co.uk/pages/about2.html

If you’re looking for a thatcher, go to these associations
The National Society of Master Thatchers www.nsmtltd.co.uk
The East Anglia Master Thatchers Association www.eamta.co.uk

If you’re a landowner wanting advice about growing reed and sedge contact us