A roof over your New Forest head by Mark and Hugh

A Roof over your Head

Mark and Hugh's story this week is about the fabric and the history of thatch including the lovely thatched buildings of the New Forest and many more fascinating facts!

Mark and Hugh signoff 600x400

Ed Note: Mark and Hugh's contributions continue to delve deep and reveal some brilliant insights. We hope you are enjoying them as much as we are... 

Read on below! But before you do so, just in case you don't already receive our Weekly What's On e-newsletter do sign up to receive it on Friday mornings! 


A roof over your head, the luxury of protection from the elements.

If you really want to appreciate your roof try this simple experiment. Wait for the most vicious winter storm, the type that wants to rip the car door from your fingertips and tear trees to pieces. The type that seems to have the power of ten fire hydrants so that as you skitter from the car to the front door you are soaked in a moment. When the next one comes galloping in from the Atlantic, take a deep breath and without either a hat or umbrella, walk out into the middle of your garden. Then, as you are lashed by the rain and buffeted by the wind, take a look skywards at your humble roof. It sits there, secure in all but the most extreme weathers, protecting you and your family from the elements. Try for a moment, to imagine life without a roof. Then, before your partner sees you, dash indoors and pour yourself a comforting glass of Cloudy Bay.

These days we have roofing materials that we fit and forget, modern interlocking tiles are long lasting and secure; but roofing materials such as these are a recent development. Ancient man didn’t have a builder’s merchant, he just had nature and that’s exactly where he sourced his materials.

Thatch, is there a simpler prettier roof ever?

What is thatch? Essentially, we’re talking about plant stems that are gathered into tightly bound  bundles and then used to cover a roof. Varying types of fastenings secure the bundles to the roof. The pitch needs to be a minimum of forty-five degrees, preferably fifty. The reason for this is that if thatch were laid horizontally, eventually the rain would weep between the stems and get through. Reed is waterproof, it has to be because it grows in the stuff, but when gathered in a bunch and laid on the ground it doesn’t present a waterproof barrier at all. A bucket of water poured on top would soon find its way through as it dribbled between the stems.  The way thatch works is that the reeds are laid at an angle and as such the rain is drawn down the reed by gravity. Little by little as the droplets make their way down the reeds the rain penetrates the bundle, but only to a depth of around two inches. As the thatch is typically twelve inches thick this is of no matter.

 Imagine that you, as ancient man, had just built a shelter for your family. There are strong walls and a good door but you need a roof. As a novice roof maker, which plant do you choose in order to keep your family warm and dry? Oak trees tend to have rather large stems that weigh tons rather than ounces. Good for roof beams perhaps but far too heavy for the large expanse to be covered. Grass  weighs very little but has no inherent strength or longevity. Willow is plentiful and long lasting but the collective weight of the number of stems required to keep the rain out would still be prohibitive. Then one day as you find yourself out of ideas you take a walk and find yourself sitting at a riverbank. You reach out and snap off a piece of reed and, as you turn it over and over in your fingers, a germ of an idea begins to form.

Back then, commerce wasn’t the driver, it was survival. Nature can be cruel and it has no sympathy for those who have failed to prepare. For research please refer to the factual story of the Three Little Pigs. No really, it’s all true.

Our ancient builders must have experimented long and hard with the various materials at their disposal. Then, having found what they thought was the best material they had to look at how to secure it in place so that it would survive the worst storm. In many ways builders of yesteryear are little different to engineers of today. Essentially, they had to learn by their mistakes. The motor cars of today didn’t become reliable by accident or overnight, they evolved. Unreliable systems or components were improved or superseded. Due to careful and incremental development, the lubricating oils and fuels of today are far superior to those of just thirty years ago. In the seventies a car that had reached 100,000 miles was treated as a deity, mechanics would gather round to stare at the thing. These days a car of this mileage is just getting into its stride. At the time they were first built, suspension bridges were revolutionary but a few fell down, especially in strong winds. Again, engineers learned from these failures. Aircraft reliability is such that flying is now safer than driving.

The thatched roofs that you see as you drive around the forest were perfected many centuries ago. Master Thatchers learned from those that had perfected the art before them and in turn they pass down the same skills to their apprentices. This knowledge is essential in order to create a roof which will be warm, waterproof and stand up to nature’s challenges. You could argue that the average man in the street could bundle up reeds and wire them to a roof structure. You would probably be right. But would the structure survive a storm, remain waterproof, last for the duration. I doubt it. There’s more to craft that meets the eye.

Warmth in winter, bliss.

There are many materials listed for thatch. The first and foremost is reed which is quoted as having a life span of up to sixty years. This in itself is impressive. Also listed are straw and a whole host of other plant life which I am sure that ancient man grasped at in desperation. A good friend recently had the roof of his thirties bungalow re-tiled. Naturally the inquisitive me asked why?. He patiently explained (all of my friends are patient, by necessity) that the reason was erosion. Year after year the tiles simply become thinner. In the world of fashion this is good, in the world of roofing, not so. Essentially his roof had lasted eighty years; not a bad innings. However, we have to take into account one other important factor, something that is a fact of life for the naked ape that chooses to live north of the tropic of cancer or south of the tropic of Capricorn. This is something called insulation. Whenever you pull on any item of clothing you are insulating yourself from the temperature of the air around you. Houses do an incredible job of protecting us from the elements but a tiled roof only keeps out the rain, it isn’t particularly good at keeping the warmth in. In order to try to keep a house as warm as possible we put insulation in the attic.  Thatch is typically laid to a depth of twelve inches thick which makes the roof naturally very well insulated as well as waterproof. We should remember that current glass-fibre and rockwool insulation has a ‘U’ (insulation) value of 0.35. This is the same amount of insulation as the centuries old thatch. It would appear that in a way, the old methods are quite modern, or the modern quite old.

Returning to the materials, these days we use either reed or straw. The two have very different life spans reed being far superior. But nothing in life is simple and the brittle reeds cannot be used for the ridge. Here straw is used and because of its relatively short life it is inspected more frequently. Unfortunately, native reed is suffering as a direct result of human activity. Once again, we humans are having a negative impact upon our environment. Due to the run off of nitrates from fertilised fields, the reed that grows at the banks of the River Shannon in Ireland now grows much more quickly making the stems soft and unsuitable for thatch. Tragically we now import from Europe where farming isn’t as ‘advanced’ and the reed is the same structure as it was years ago. Norfolk reed which was once considered the ‘king’ is now a rarity and is typically used only in Norfolk itself. I spoke to a Norfolk thatcher who told me that the vast majority of reed comes from the continent. He added that there was more foreign reed on the roofs of Norfolk cottages than the local variety. Apparently, the job of cutting is so arduous that there are few takers.

Our beautiful forest and its ancient buildings.

I have only just realised as I am writing this article that I don’t think I have ever seen what could be considered an ugly building in the New Forest villages. In all the miles I have driven and all the villages I have passed through I honestly don’t think my nose has wrinkled once. There are some 1600 listed buildings in our forest; a fifth of these are thatched and they have to be the prettiest of all. A word of caution to prospective buyers, thatch is a financially serious undertaking and the phrase ‘buyer beware’ is important here. In addition, there is the risk of fire. There’s not a year goes by without another evening news item showing a smouldering thatch building with fire hoses snaking across the ground. Modern methods can help, there are companies that have perfected a fire-retardant method which will earn the roof a fire certificate. There’s plenty to consider. In the mean time we can still enjoy what is undeniably the loveliest form of cottage we can ever clap our eyes on.

people with thatched hair on heads



More tales and cartoons for Lymington and the New Forest from Mark and Hugh

If you'd like to read previous articles on diverse subjects written by Mark and illustrated by Hugh's cartoons here they are, click the links embedded in the titles:

The Parish Church of St Thomas the Apostle
Richard St Barbe Baker

Our star, our sun, our salt!
To Lymington or Cuba
The Auld Mug

Seeds of success

Moonlit meeting with cetaceans 

Trees and what they tell us
Cartography and trig pillars

Pony drifts and pannage in the New Forest
A journey from the New Forest via Lymington
The brilliance - and persistence - of Marconi

Equality in the skies
Bees pollinators par excellence 
Cordless home entertainment

The joy of sheds

When the Isle of Wight was just Wight
Bucklers Hard

Salisbury Cathedral 
Pond Life in our Forests 
Bombs Away 
Baileys Hard 
Rufus Stone and Sir Walter Tyrrell
Graffiti through the ages
Freedom of the roads
Heath fires
Lymington Lido
Watch the birdie
Unstoppable momentum of nature
Socially distanced socialising
Calshot Spit, a curse for mariners...



Your message here