The word thatch comes from an Old English word thaec meaning roof-covering, which
indicates that thatch was the standard in Anglo-Saxon England. It has been used
for centuries. In AD 652 Bede recorded in his Ecclesiastical History of the English
People (Book III, chapter 25) that Bishop Finan had built a church on the island
of Lindisfarne that he had covered with reed ‘in the Irish manner’.
Thatched roof at How Hill in Norfolk. The ridge pattern consists of alternating
straight lines and semicircles.
Methods of thatching have changed little over the last five hundred years or so,
the craft having been perfected a long time ago. It is highly skilled work, which
involves among other things a good judgement of the eye. The thatcher begins at
the eaves of a building and works his way upwards.
Thatch makes an excellent roof in as much as it is a good natural insulator due to
the way air is trapped between the layers, making the building below it warm in winter
and cool in summer. On the other hand, it is a readily flammable material and so
is not a good choice in situations where buildings are close together, such as in
towns. However, it is still popular for use in rural areas. The pitch on a thatched
roof is usually steeper than on other kinds of roof to allow rain or snow to fall
away more rapidly.
Right: Thatcher at work on the ridge of a cottage at Semere Green in Norfolk.
The most common plant used for thatched roofs is reed, often referred to as Norfolk
reed because so much of it is produced here. It is also still harvested in Suffolk,
but to a lesser degree. It grows naturally in marshes and estuaries. After winter
frosts have killed off the leaves on the stems, it is cut, dried and stacked into
bundles. Reed, though stout and durable (a reed thatch can last up to seventy years
or more), it is not at all pliable. Therefore it is not used on the ridge of a roof.
Straw, rush or sedge is used instead, the latter best for blending in with reed
in colour and texture. None of these last as long as reed and so need to be replaced
Some of the patterning is to the way hazel battens, which secure the thatch, are
put in place. The different designs that you see are due to the fancies of individual
Thatched roof on a house at Rishangles in Suffolk. The ridge pattern here consists
of straight lines interrupted by triangles.
Thatched cottage in the village of Burston in Norfolk. Below is the same cottage
some years later showing that the ridge has been replaced and has a change in pattern.
The ridge pattern here at Flempton in Suffolk consists of straight lines alternating
with semicircles and triangles.
Left: part view of the well-known picturesque cottages at Cavendish in Suffolk. The
pink walls are a traditional Suffolk colour and the ridge of the thatch has a simple
Above: Thatched roof on almshouses at Homersfield in Suffolk.
Right: A thatched roof at Chelsworth in Suffolk where the ridge has quite a complex
Above is a row of cottages at Ludham on the Norfolk Broads showing two different
ridge patterns on the same thatched roof.
Thatched roof with a ridge pattern of triangles alternating with scallops on a cottage
at Creeting St. Mary in Suffolk.
Ridge of scallops and triangles on a thatch at Monks Eleigh n Suffolk. Note the
additional swan ornament.
A thatched roof on a house at Thorndon in Suffolk where the ridge has a pattern of
downward curving scallops.
Left: A ridge with a complex design on a cottage at Pulham Market in Norfolk.
Right: A complex ridge pattern on a cottage at Ludham in Norfolk.
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Left: A thatched ridge at Orford in Suffolk.
Right: A thatched cottage in Dickleburgh, Norfolk, where the ridge pattern has upward
Left: Ridge with simple scallops on a cottage at Occold in Suffolk.
Right: A thatch ridge with simple scallop pattern on a cottage in Gissing in Norfolk.