Villages are a classic image of England’s green and pleasant land.
When you think of an English village, you probably imagine something like this; a small collection of whitewashed thatched cottages, a picturesque church, narrow lanes and a peaceful, rural setting beside a sleepy river.
We often think of villages more as a collection of pretty, old buildings than a vital community of people. But villages were once the mainstay of society. Many of our villages can be traced back in time to the Domesday Book of 1086.
A thorough census of land and livestock ownership and village populations across England at that time reinforced a ruthless redistribution of land by the conquering Normans. Today, many of those villages combine 16th to 19th century historic houses at their heart, with modern bungalows and other more recent additions on their fringes.
Thatched cottages are a quintessential feature of the English village. Thatch is the oldest roofing material still in regular use. Thatching can be traced back as far as the Bronze Age and for more than 1,000 years was the most common style of roofing for cottages and farm buildings. It is even found on some church roofs.
Thatch was popular because it was lightweight, local and low cost. And people used whatever appropriate plants were to hand in large quantities.
Long wheat straw was common in the south of England, combed wheat reed in the West Country, water reeds in East Anglia and heather in northern England and Scotland. There are distinctive regional styles too in the way the thatch is laid.
Tradition of thatching
Thatching as a tradition has enjoyed a resurgence in recent decades as country cottages have been bought up and renovated. Many of our older cottages are ‘listed’ as buildings of national importance and this brings with it the need to maintain their original roofing style and type of material.
Most thatching materials are now specially grown and harvested because modern farm machinery destroys the long stalks of wheat needed for thatching, and water pollution can weaken reeds.