A reviving trade

All over the country the skill of thatching is becoming rarer and rarer as the years go on, so I found it surprising to find evidence of the old skill still alive in the London Borough of Croydon.

Coombe Farm Lodge is a charming, Grade 2 listed building, tucked away among trees in the Shirley Hills area of Croydon. However, it was not originally built on this spot at all! Some time before 1840 , it was moved, complete and on wheels, from its original location in Caterham where it was used as a shepherd’s cottage. No longer needed in Caterham it was moved to Coombe Farm where additional rooms were built to make it a more suitable modern-day home.

Today, any alterations to a Grade 2 listed building have to be considered in detail, with planning permission needed from the local council, so when the current owner, Mr Pudney decided to replace the thatched roof he had to have permission from Croydon Council.

I asked Mr Pudney how he set about looking for a thatcher and he told me that it was not easy but he did have a previous connection with a thatcher. Years ago, each farm would have had their own thatcher to repair and maintain the buildings when needed, but these days the skills are a lot less common.

Asking why he had decided to maintain the tradition of having a thatched roof, rather than replacing it with more easily maintained modern materials, such as slate or in some cases terracotta , Mr Pudney told me that he thought it helped to add character to his country house and always made people look as they passed on the busy road.

Lastly, I asked the house owner if there were any building restrictions regarding his straw and hay based roofing. He explained to me that there were few, apart from the chimney which had to be positioned at the edge of the thatching rather than going through the middle of the roof like a modern-day build. He also noted, however, that there was no need for any guttering as the thatch overhung the edge of the walls and water ran straight off onto the ground some distance from the house walls, which was a way of saving money.

I was then introduced to Mr Kenward, the thatcher. I asked him how he got into such an unusual trade. He told me that his family had been in the thatching business for many years. In fact, he was the sixth generation of thatcher in his family and his step-son was following close behind to make an impressive seventh generation of craftsmen. He commented that as we are travelling through the 21st century, thatching is experiencing a revival and is being used more frequently in modern builds with designers’ current interest in sustainability. This comes after a dramatic decline that left very few thatchers surviving in the late 20th century.

Traditionally , materials for the thatch were found locally, but now long wheat stalks may be brought from many miles away in the UK and from other EU countries such as Holland and France. Although I had thought that thatched roofs might be an extreme fire hazard, Mr Kenward explained that the roof is protected from fire using a heat protection spray, which has to be renewed every 8 years. Underneath the thatch itself there is a fire barrier which means the house is well protected from fire in the thatch. As well as this there are other safety rules regarding the distance between next-door houses and the availability of a hose pipe to ensure fire does not spread.

Showing me the pattern along the ridge of the roof, made with netting and hazel twigs, the thatcher explained that each one makes a slightly different pattern on top of the roofs, which adds to the uniqueness of the thatch and acts like a signature for each individual craftsman.

Asking about the duration or life-expectancy of a thatched roof such as this one at Coombe Farm Lodge, I was surprised to learn that on average, a thatch can last for 35-40 years, depending on the area that the house is in. If there's a lot of tree coverage around the building, then the roofing would be likely to rot at a much quicker rate.

Finally, I wondered about the considerable cost of having a thatched roof. Was it worth the expense? What would be the advantages? For the homeowner the benefit of using a natural insulator on the roof means saving money in heating during the winter, as well as the advantage of a cool house in the summer. However, it is perhaps the use of natural renewable resources that is the most important selling point for the thatching industry and the opportunity to use sustainable materials not only in rural village settings but even within the hustle of Croydon.    

Imogen Broyd, Croydon High School