THE recent fire in the 18th century thatched roof of the Woolpack Inn, at Sopley, near Ringwood, in Hampshire, where Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt visited during the Second World War, has brought about an enquiry regarding this type of roofing material.

Thatching is the craft of laying various stalks on the top of homes and other structures to make a roof.

A thatcher has a variety of tools to use in his work, although, over the years, they have changed to more modern ones.

A thatcher in the 1930s would have a bill-hook, paring knife, forked stick and a rake with iron teeth. He would also have a supply of tarred cord to hold the thatching material in position, and wooden pegs made either of hazel or willow.

Various materials were used in those days to cover the building, such as grass, reeds, bracken, gorse and heather, while other alternatives were wheat or rye straw.

Nowadays, Norfolk reed is the material favoured by thatchers as it will last between 50 and 60 years.

Straw is usually in lengths of two to two-and-a-half feet, while reed is three to seven feet long.

Today’s thatcher has different tools and procedures, but, basically, the same effect is achieved.

The thatcher lays the straw or reed vertically down thatching battens, which are nailed across the roof rafters. The thatch is held in place on the battens using metal pins, but if it is a case of repairing the thatch, then the new amount is secured to the existing thatch by twisted hazelwood strips, called spars.

Wire netting, used to prevent birds and mice nesting in the thatch, is often used across the whole roof when thatched, and this usually lasts up to 15 years, although it is wise to check it once a year.

The thatching of roofs has been around for hundreds of years in Britain, while in other countries the craft goes back to primitive days, especially in Africa, where huts can be built in one day with the aid of wooden posts and bundles of reeds.

Once the roof is laid, the walls are put in place with similar materials, but because of the danger of fire, cooking is done outdoors.

Countries such as Madagascar, the Philippines, Cambodia and Guatemala have thatched homes.

In England, there are still many cottages and other structures which have thatched roofs. Hampshire has a fine collection in its villages, with Old Basing, Mapledurwell, South Warnborough, Upton Grey and Oakley being the nearest to Basingstoke, while in the town itself there are still a few cottages about with thatch on their roofs, although they are on the outskirts.

Although roofs of buildings are now laid with tiles and slates, a few structures are thatched to make them look attractive.

In Basingstoke, in 1996, a new inn, The Portsmouth Arms, was almost complete at Hatch Warren, with a brand-new thatched roof, when on August 17 that year, a fire caused a lot of damage to the building. It was soon rebuilt and, in January 1999, a man was charged with arson after an investigation by the police.

Thatched roofs can be set on fire by accident and, every year, the fire prevention officers hear of birds dropping lit cigarettes on to the roofs of these type of houses, or electrical wires and sparks from chimneys causing the thatch to catch alight.

Even the Queen, when she was six years old, was caught in an accidental fire of a thatched cottage during a journey from Wales. It happened in 1932, when she was Princess Elizabeth. The Welsh people presented her with a model cottage which was half the size of a normal one. Designed for a child, the doors and windows were much smaller, but it had electric lights and running water when delivered. During the transportation of the cottage to London, flames were seen to be coming from the thatch and the lorry was quickly stopped and the fire bridge called.

The building was repaired and delivered to the future Queen. Both her and her sister, Margaret, enjoyed many happy days playing in the cottage, while their children did the same in later years.

This Flashback was originally published on April 10, 2008.