Reed is common name for the grass-like plants of wetlands. Thatching is traditionally associated with water reeds. These marginal plants grown on the edge of water such as ponds and lakes (lochs). Harvesting the reeds takes place every winter between December and April when the seasons growth has finished.
Reed cutting and thatching are part of the cultural heritage of the British Isles. We know that there were thatched buildings on the island as far back as the Iron Age, reconstructions of which can be seen at Loch Tay in Scotland.
Reed cutting along the Norfolk coast is a centuries-old part of the longshore economy of Norfolk. Over the years, it has provided the local population with an income in winter when other forms of agricultural work were scarce and severe storms made fishing hazardous.
Water reed is traditionally associated with the East Anglian wetlands and coastal marshes. A particularly hard reed, it will last 40 to 50 years when used as thatch. The more pliable, long straw reed is grown in Yorkshire, Essex and Devon, while the resilient combed wheat reed is generally seen around the West Country.
Like many other British heritage industries, thatching has been threatened by cheaper imports from abroad – notably Poland, Turkey and Austria – and by changing building practices at home. Nevertheless, the industry remains buoyant throughout the country.
Once harvested, the reeds are loosely bundled, raked for debris, then tied with twine. They are then transported off the marshes to be dried in preparation for thatching.
Bundles of reed must be bone dry before use to avoid rotting. They are laid abutting each other so they almost overlap and then dressed in place.
Hazel wood spars are used to secure the wire that holds the thatch in place.
Thatching styles are dictated primarily by the materials. Water and combed wheat reed have a similar hard-edged finish. Long straw reed (pictured here) has a softer, shaggier look and can be manipulated into sculpted shapes using a three-foot long blade.
Tools of the trade include a wooden-handled implement, which is used to join the wire of the adjacent bundles, and shears to trim the thatch once it is in place.
Alfriston Clergy House, East Sussex
A 14th-century Wealden hall house, re-thatched in 2005, with an existing base of water reed covered with long straw.
Shakespeare’s Globe, London
Its roof is thatched with water reed
Weald & Downland Open Air Museum, West Sussex
Long straw reed is used for the roof
Combed wheat reed is the material of choice in this county
Thatched Home Inspector
Courses in Okehampton, Devon, suitable for professionals and enthusiasts and led by a qualified thatcher with a farming background.
One-day courses in the Brecon Beacons, South Wales, suitable for builders, homeowners and enthusiasts.
Weald & Downland Open Air Museum
Short, practical thatching courses.
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