In Storybook England, medieval cottages with thatched roofs snuggle into rolling green hills criss-crossed with stone walls and hedgerows.
In 21st century England, all this still exists – just. But it could do with some support and your tourist dollars can help.
Much has been written about saving the hedgerows. Probably more than anything else, the hedgerows symbolise the heritage of the English countryside. It’s not just nostalgia, though – hedgerows actually house a substantial portion of England’s biodiversity, too.
Did you know that the same applies to thatched roofs? Thatched cottages have heritage value but they are also expensive to maintain. They might be quaint but since modern materials are cheaper and easier, thatches have been slowly disappearing over the last century. Not only that, but now it seems they are under threat from climate change too, as warmer, wetter weather encourages moss and algae to grow in the thatch while also creating a shortage of straw.
The great shame for environmentalists is that thatched roofs have been around so long they are now an essential part of the ecosystem in England, and indeed in the rest of the United Kingdom and in Ireland, as well. The thatch comes from natural, sustainable materials – the most common type in the UK and Ireland is wheat straw, while some parts of the country use water reed. Once on the house, the thatch itself provides habitat and food for wildlife, especially birds and insects.
If you stay in a thatched cottage, your tourist dollars are automatically helping preserve the tradition. But your money could be even better targeted.
Under the Thatch offers a wonderful and eclectic collection of historic places to stay, mostly in west Wales. (The Ecologist magazine has a nice write-up). Strictly speaking, not all of them are thatched – the site also includes a few unusual options such as a yurt and a Romany (gypsy) caravan. The buildings are wonderful but what makes the company unique are the ethical trading policies.
Profits are used to rescue or conserve heritage buildings at risk, using environmentally-friendly materials, and the site has a policy that all properties must be let year round to help sustain local communities even if they have to resort to bargain-basement prices to do it.
Another good option is to rent a cottage via the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds). They have access to cottages mostly in England, Wales and Scotland but also Ireland and continental Europe and brokering the holiday lettings help raises money for the charity’s environmental work.
Image: John Picken (not affiliated with Under the Thatch)