Cambridgeshire Roofs

There has been an odd spate of crimes in Cambridgeshire in recent weeks – arson, directed exclusively at thatched roofs (see, for example, here).

The fires were started in villages to the north west of Cambridge, towards Huntingdon, but thatching is particularly common in South Cambridgeshire (as it is, in fact, throughout England, which has considerably more intact thatch that any other Northern European country).

Thatch is made from straw from particular varieties of wheat, or, in East Anglia, from dried reeds, which were historically farmed in the reed beds known as fens (examples of which still exist around Cambridge, notably at Wicken Fen, on which I have posted before).

Why thatching should be more common in South Cambridgeshire than north, I do not know, but it correlates with average house prices (which the Telegraph article linked to above is careful to note) – thatch, since its revival at the beginning of the last century, has been indexed to wealth rather than agricultural obscurity: to live in a thatched cottage is to be doing all right. And South Cambridgeshire is more blessed in this respect than North. Head south from Cambridge along the Trumpington Road, and you almost immediately run into some impressive thatched roofs.

The traditional sedge or reed thatching of Cambridgeshire has largely been replaced over the years with longstraw thatching (although I read that the sedge thatching was particularly prevalent around the margins of the fens – in other words, in North Cambridgeshire). Here, however, is a demonstration of reed thatching – note the elaborate ridge to the roof, which often bears the signature of the thatcher.

I have no idea why the arsonists have turned their attention to thatch. It is, however, a highly contested craft, with practitioners getting pretty angry with one another (and with the council) over techniques and sourcing of raw materials. Perhaps there is a turf war breaking out.


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