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Wheat over water

Thatcher John Jennings states the case for the traditional West Country combed wheat straw

Bundles of combed wheat reed and locally sourced hazel spars

The thatch on the quaint little cottage near Milton Abbas has seen better days. In fact, round the back there is a place where it has begun to resemble a weedy compost heap. Inside, the roof space is filled with dust and ancient straw and I trace the timbers with my torch. There are some split battens that have given way but all the ancient pole rafters are still intact.

I brush the cobwebs from my hair and replace the hatch before leaving a trail of dust on the stairs going down to the kitchen.
‘Well?’ The house-owner smiles and pours the tea, but I can see that she is worried.
‘The roof is strong enough, so no problem there,’ I say, and she looks relieved. ‘I’ve worked out the cost of re-thatching, but’ – I suck through my teeth dramatically – ‘I reckon you had better sit down.’

Twisting a spar

It isn’t as bad as she’d feared and after I agree to send her the cost in writing for the all the work needed, we talk for a while and finish the tea and biscuits. Before I go, she turns her thoughts back to the roof and asks me what kind of thatch I will be using.
‘Combed wheat,’ I say, ‘the local reed.’

She looks a little dubious. ‘Is that straw? It’s just that my neighbour was saying that I should make sure the work is done in water reed. He says it will last for forty years or even more.’

A cross-section of the coatwork on a job at Milton Abbas, showing tools, the spar-bond and the depth of the fixings

I look at her and wonder where to start. I have found the idea that water reed is the answer to all a thatch-owner’s concerns to be an increasingly common misconception. I explain that the two materials are not always interchangeable. I tell her that I have seen examples of good and bad results from both types of thatching reed. I mention briefly some of the official problems of changing thatching materials on a listed cottage and promise to select the best locally grown reed available if she chooses me to do the work.

As I drive away, I wonder if she was convinced that wheat reed is the right choice for her roof, or if she will go elsewhere in search of another thatcher who will change to the ‘wonder’ material her neighbour has recommended. She will no doubt find someone who will thatch the roof in water reed, but it is something I am not always prepared to do.

The coatwork nears completion on this house at Kings Stag

I have been thatching in North Dorset for over twenty years, caring for roofs in and around Blandford, Sturminster Newton, Shaftesbury and Gillingham. I have worked with both kinds of reeds and on all sorts of roofs, but it is when using wheat to re-thatch old Dorset cottages that I feel best pleased with my work. Southern England is the only place in Europe where straw is still grown regularly for thatching and where the farming and roofing skills still survive to use it properly for this purpose. It is the traditional form of thatching in many areas of southern England, sympathetic both to the ancient roofs and to the countryside around. Thatching in wheat often gives the building a softer look, more rounded over the gables and eaves, more at home here in the West Country, where cereals have been grown for centuries.

A tall, hollow-stemmed winter wheat is used for the purpose. Once it was a by-product of the main seed crop, but now it is grown mostly for thatching. It is harvested with a binder and stood to dry in the field in stooks before being stacked carefully into ricks. When the threshing machine arrives, the grain, weeds and leaf are removed, leaving the straw largely unbruised. The bundles are now known as combed wheat reed.

Wheat reed is attached to the roof by twisted hazel pegs (spars) that are driven into an undercoat, leaving the old rafters undisturbed. It is light and gentle to the older structures. Water reed is heavier and requires a stronger force to attach it to the roof, and the two kinds of thatch used in the county today are not always interchangeable.

Brushing the roof clean on a cottage at Hilton

While some thatchers are willing to use spars with water reed, I feel it is not always ideal for a number of reasons. First, it is asking a lot of an old straw base layer to hold so great a weight tightly on the roof. I have seen such roofs where the spar bonds have loosened over the years, allowing reeds to be released and premature holes to develop. Secondly, I have even known the sheer weight of water reed to cause a collapse in older structures; one only has to carry the reeds across a site to appreciate how much heavier water reed is.

I am not against the use of water reed at all; it is a good and hard-wearing material. Where the roof is made from sawn timber rafters, it is almost always the right choice, being fastened down with hooked nails (crooks) or with modern screws. It can also be fixed well enough to a thatch base-coat, as long as the thatcher pays special attention to the fixings. But for the old cottages with pole-rafter roofs, combed wheat reed is more sympathetic to the structure and is usually my recommendation.

The local District Council are unwilling to see the craft die out. Personally, I am happy to have contributed to Dorset’s wheat reed thatching heritage, but some of my fellow-thatchers have long disagreed with planning restrictions that prevent them from choosing which reed to use on listed buildings. Some of them have been very active in promoting imported water reed and claiming its superiority, while others may be unwilling to spend the extra time and attention that wheat reed demands from the thatcher, both on the ladder and in securing good-quality supplies.

A finished roof at Winterborne Stickland

But the supposed trump card in this debate is the view that water reed will last much longer. On the face of it this is true, and when customers see a bundle of each material side by side, they notice the length of the water reed and feel how heavy it is compared to wheat reed. They are in the position of having to fork out thousands of pounds and so are eager for a promise of forty or fifty years’ life. They are easily persuaded that the difference in length of the two materials is reflected directly in the longevity of the roof. As the ends of the reeds get wet, they rot. Over the decades, the decay moves back along the reeds to the place they were attached and the water can find a way in via the fixings. So the longer a bundle of thatch looks, the more easily persuaded a customer often is that the coatwork will last a long time. But this is not as simple as it sounds. If a direct comparison of the two materials is to be given proper consideration, it should be made clear that wheat reed is laid on the roofwith more deeply buried fixings than water reed and that this goes a long way to compensating for water reed’s extra length.

All thatching materials are subject to huge variations in quality. In Tarrant Monkton I was sent by my old boss to re-ridge a cottage and found that the water reed on it had rotted out through capillary action after less than fifteen years, while in Shaftesbury I have found a combed wheat reed roof that was ready to do another ten-year stretch after 32 years’ service. The potential life of a new thatch is dictated by a mix of many things. The roof pitch and its exposure to the weather, the simplicity of the roof design and the quality of the reed are all important, and of course the craftsmanship plays a large part. The thatcher must ensure that the depth of the fixing is consistent and that the reed is laid with even pitch and density across the whole roof. On average wheat reed will last 25 years if it is well grown and correctly laid, and there is no guarantee that water reed will do any better here in the wet climate of the West Country. The outrageous claims for its longevity being bandied around seem unfounded – echoes, perhaps, of stories from Norfolk, where the roofs are steeper and the climate colder and much drier.

Combed wheat reed is under threat from another direction. Two terrible harvests mean that seed stocks are diminished, lending weight to its detractors and forcing up the cost. But I have been first and foremost a wheat reed thatcher and I am convinced that it is a good-quality thatching material perfectly suited to the old roofs of the area. In these modern times it seems even more appropriate than ever to support our farmers and source local materials. I will continue to recommend combed wheat reed to the owners of listed buildings when they ask for my advice, not out of a romantic or whimsical love of history and tradition, but because it is a viable and competitive material, perfectly suited to the task of protecting some of our oldest buildings.

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