Cottage 16 in Wytham village, complete after being re-thatched


Oxford’s Estates Team has carefully overseen the re-roofing of several cottages in Wytham village 

Published: 10 July 2024


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Cottage Number 2, before restoration

Many readers will have heard about the incredible ecology research that Oxford conducts in Wytham Woods, but fewer will remember that the University also presides over the adjacent village, bequeathed to it by the ffennell family in 1942 along with the woods and nearby farmland.

The houses are rented to private tenants, and some of them needed new thatched roofs. Now begins the tale, because this is no easy thing in 2024. First there is a known shortage of thatching skills nationwide, which explains why there is almost 18 month waiting list for the thatchers. Second, the scale of the work required was large, and owing to the historical nature of the properties there were requirements for how the world was done.

Cottage Number 2, after completion

Members of the Heritage & Building Maintenance team in Estates Services managed the project, which began in summer 2023. The main contractor was Beard, with roofing work handled by specialists from J Challis Master Thatcher. Fourteen properties in the village were included, as well as what is believed to be Wytham’s last working well. Seven homes had to be re-thatched entirely, with the others only needing the main ridge to be replaced along with spot repairs in problem areas.

In most cases only the top foot or so of thatch was replaced, with the historic lower levels left in place. A new watertight outer layer of British-grown thatch was then added and secured using traditional hazel spars. The team took care to maintain each roof’s distinctive features, while also adding their own detailing along the ridgelines – master thatchers all have their own unique styles that act like a signature to other specialists.

The team also addressed other problems they discovered in areas like masonry and roof timbers, as well as coping with a variety of wildlife that had found its way into the thatch, including hornets, wasps and squirrels.

This is the largest thatching project ever carried out in the village, and the photos show the beautiful results, results that will also greatly aid the insulation of the houses and should sort them out for the next fifteen years.

Turning loose bundles of straw into a tight, weatherproof and durable roof is extremely skilled work, and most thatchers serve at least four-year apprenticeships before they can work independently. Besides its other benefits, the project has also helped preserve these valuable traditional skills, with several apprentices honing their craft on the village’s roofs over its course.

Other feedback notes from the Estates Team include the fact that hazel spars (the slender lengths of wood that are used like staples to pin the thatch in place) are hard to get hold of, with many UK supplies delinquent. ‘The thatcher we used obtained their straight spurs from a company in Salisbury, but the twisted ones are from Poland due to the high costs and lack of supply of UK spars.

As for the thatch, it came from a farm in Devon that grows crops specifically for thatching – they are strong and need to grow tall. The farm supplies three UK thatchers, other than that there are just three main thatch suppliers in the UK, but more often than not these days they are importing from Europe and they are more like distributers.

And then, site-specific to Wytham, there is a jackdaw problem. Historically, the local flock of jackdaws seem to have passed down the sport of pulling straw out of the village’s roofs.

They have been doing this for decades, seemingly for no practical purpose – it is like a game that’s been passed down the jackdaw generations, much to villagers’ annoyance.  The flock that roosts in the woods above the village is very numerous, and over time the birds do a lot of damage.

As well as putting this right, the team have also taken steps to control the problem in future, installing a double layer of wire netting all over the roofs. This makes it much harder for the jackdaws to pull straw out, and the team hope it will persuade them to look for fun elsewhere.

All the old thatch was taken to the University’s composting site Begbroke Science Park to keep it out of landfill.

So – a great result but one that underlines the inherent fragility of the British coppicing industry that once used to provide the hazel, and the agricultural supply chain that precludes the use of combine harvesters to attain the right straw, whether combed wheat reed (mainly use here), water reed (not used in Wytham) or long straw (used at one Wytham property).

Hopefully with the sort of ‘forever’ custodianship offered by the University, the necessary skills and materials will continue to be attained in the future.

Picture credits: University of Oxford/Estates. The lead image is Cottage Number 16, complete. The two images in the main article show Cottage Number 2, before and after restoration and re-roofing.