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Thatched roofs ----icons of England,Synthetic Thatch

 Living historical heritage: (Clockwise from above) There are more thatched roofs in the UK than anywhere else in Europe. Thatchers have been practising their craft here since people first began gathering in villages - before the middle ages. A good thatched roof not only makes a country cottage picturesque - it is also very long lasting. A roof thatched by a skilled craftsman can last 40 to 50 years without needing refurbishment.


COTTAGES and houses with thatched roofs are a pleasing sight in the English countryside. There are more thatched roofs in the United Kingdom than in any other European country.


Although thatch is used all over the world, it seems to be used in a charming manner in Britain. A quaint English village is typified by stone cottages with climbing roses and with well kept thatch roofs.


Thatch is probably the oldest roofing material and has been used in both tropical and temperate climates. The roof is covered with dry vegetation such as straw, reed, sedge, rushes and heather, and the vegetation is layered so that water runs away.


Although the work of thatching is now very costly in the Western world, in developing countries it is used as a low cost material, using local vegetation that is easily available.


In England thatch has been used since at least the Middle Ages, maybe as far back as the Iron Age, when the materials used were widely available. Thatched cottages and farm buildings were the norm in rural Britain for a millennium or more.


In those days people cooked on open fires, and it was very common for the thatch to catch alight resulting in disastrous fires which swept through the villages. It was such a problem that thatch roofs were prohibited in London as far back at the 13th century.


In those days it was easy to get the natural materials used for the roofs. But as the supply of wheat and therefore straw declined, especially during various wars, by the early 19th century thatching was in decline. One reason for this decline was better transportation. With new railways being built in Victorian Britain, it was easy to get cheap slate from Wales, and slate became a popular roofing material.


The tradition of thatching in Britain has lasted and a few skilled craftsmen are in high demand. In Asia most thatched roofs are made from sago and are known as attap. In England the traditional material has always been straw from wheat. Good quality straw can last around 50 years. New layers of straw are laid on top of the old layers, and can result in a thickness of up to 2m of thatch.


Water reed is also another plant widely used, but nowadays this has to be imported from Eastern Europe. As more of the English countryside is being devoured by new buildings and housing estates, there is an increasing shortage of natural materials as the landscape becomes more urban.


The thatcher has to be skilled to do a good roof. Bundles of the material are tied together and then laid on the roof. They are secured to the roof beams, and pegged in place with wooden rods. Layers are added on top of one another and the final layer is secured to the ridgeline of the roof. The thatch has to endure the inclement weather, such as rain and heavy winds, and the lifespan depends on the skill of the craftsman.


Some thatch is supported with wire netting. This reminds me of an old lady with her hair held in place with a hair net! The thatch requires some maintenance over the years, despite being fairly weather resistant. In countries such as England which are cold in winter, a thickly thatched roof provides insulation and keeps the house warm.


Some houses even have a decorative feature on the roof in the shape of a thatched animal, usually a bird such as a peacock or pheasant. Other animals such as hares and foxes are symbolised and it is said that each thatcher has his own personal "signature" represented by the animal he makes.


One thousand years ago, castles and manor houses in Britain had roofs lined with thatch. The poor people used thatch for their cottages and hovels. Farmhouses were thatched and even some churches used this material. Today some of the country pubs still have thatched roofs and this certainly attracts customers who are drawn by the beauty of the building. It's funny how thatch once started as a poor man's roof in England, and now is generally only used by the wealthy.

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