Thatching is the use of straw or grasses as a building material and the practice in Britain goes back at least as far as the Bronze age (c. 3750 – 600 B.C.)
The reason for using thatch is that buildings were in general made from materials such as wattle and daub with a crick frame, which while very sturdy when they are well built, they are not load bearing and so needed a lightweight material that was also locally available.
Different parts of Britain use different roofing thatch, further south broom, sedge, flax or wheat grass are used. In the north of England and Scotland it is often heather and in East Anglia it is water reed, which is still much prized today and it still grown in large quantities specifically for the thatching industry.
It wasn’t just the poor that had thatched houses either, some grand houses also used thatch. In 1300 A.D the Norman castle at Pevensey bought six acres of rushes to roof the hall and chambers.
Churches too used thatch, in 1880 a church in Southwold Suffolk was re-roofed it used thatch on one side that faced away from the road, and slate on the other so that from the front it looked as if the whole roof was of slate.
The main reasons for the decline of thatch as a roofing material were the improvements in transportation. With the coming of the railway in the Victorian era is was easy to obtain cheap slate from the Welsh quarries; and with the introduction of agricultural machinery, in particularly the combine harvester which makes wheat straw unusable for thatch.
It is still considered by many people however to be an excellent choice for roofing, it is not as flammable as people think as it is a slow burner, most fires are the result of a faulty or badly maintained chimney, or by burning things such as paper which tend to go up the flue while still alight.
It is naturally weather resistant when properly maintained and has very good wind resistance when applied correctly. It is also a very good insulator in both warm weather and cold due to the air pockets within the thatching material, which happily means that it is coming back into favour both with people who like their home to be aesthetically pleasing, and with the environmentally minded that require locally sourced and renewable building materials.