Dovecotes and Pigeon Lofts

PUBLISHED: 17:40 27 June 2011 | UPDATED: 19:36 20 February 2013

Dovecotes and Pigeon Lofts

Dovecotes and Pigeon Lofts

An in-depth study of these historic buildings in Wiltshire reveals that the county is exeptional in having many surviving examples.

Dovecotes are beautiful and mysterious buildings so it is surprising that little interest was taken in them by the general public until Arthur O Cookes A Book of Dovecotes was published in 1920.

Though he raised awareness of the need to preserve a vanishing type of traditional building, Cooke also started a few myths about their use which still persist.

John McCann, with the assistance of his wife, Pamela, has for some years been surveying dovecotes in different parts of England and discovering from old sources the truth about how they were set up and used.

John and Pamelas survey of Wiltshire took several years to complete and was assisted by the small staff of the Wiltshire Buildings Record (WBR).

This unique organisation was set up in 1979 to make and collect records of the countys buildings, and its archive is today housed at the imposing Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre at Chippenham. Members of the Record, a voluntary body, had already visited some of the dovecotes, and were able to provide photographs of these buildings in an earlier state, sometimes before conversion to residential use.

So what does the book tell us? The Romans kept doves but in the tops of buildings so no physical evidence remains in England. The practice of pigeon-keeping was reintroduced to this country by the Normans. Until 1619, the common law of England permitted only lords of manors and some priests to keep pigeons. The most ancient Wiltshire dovecote is in the garden of the Rectory Hotel at Crudwell. In the medieval period this was a rectory of Malmesbury Abbey and the dovecote may be as old as Crudwell church, which was rebuilt between 1260 and 1288.

Another interesting ecclesiastical dovecote is situated in the late-15th century tower of Collingbourne Ducis church. Its produce enabled the priest to dine at the same standard as his secular equivalents, or as the lordly family from which he came. The tender meat of the four-week-old young birds, still unable to fly, was a prized delicacy, available from Easter to November, and not to supplement food supplies in the depths of winter as has often been claimed.

After 1619 the right to keep pigeons was extended to any freeholder. Agricultural prosperity in the late-17th and 18th centuries brought about the building of many more dovecotes in Wiltshire, in varying sizes and shapes. They were constructed of the local building materials, stone and brick, and in some cases timber-framing but these last have unfortunately not survived.

A large proportion of the 59 surviving dovecotes in Wiltshire can be found in the limestone area to the north-west and north, an outlying area of the Cotswolds. There too are most of the pigeon lofts, a local curiosity found to a much lesser extent in most other parts of England. These are groups of nest-holes in the thickness of the walls of houses, barns, stables, coach-houses and other types of buildings, or sometimes they comprise entry holes leading into wooden nest-boxes inside the building. A spectacular example is in the end wall of a stable building at Poplar Farm, Atworth.

The keeping of pigeons was discouraged during the French Revolutionary Wars because the grain on which they fed was in short supply. Most dovecotes went out of use at that time. The practice became popular again on a smaller scale for a while after 1815, and a few new dovecotes were built for picturesque effect. Some owners are tempted to bring surviving dovecotes and pigeon lofts back into use today to house ornamental pigeons.

Most people do not realise that the majority of feral pigeons in town centres are descended from the Blue Rock Doves of the dovecotes, turned away when their accommodation was demolished or adapted for other uses. A practical (though admittedly unlikely) solution to the nuisance of hundreds of homeless birds sitting on the sloping roofs of our county town, Trowbridge, would be to build a large new municipal dovecote, farmed to supply local restaurants from Easter to November and provide manure for the local fields!

Nearly all the sites featured in the book are on private property. However, there is an old stone dovecote at the National Trusts Avebury Manor, and pigeon lofts can be seen from the farmyard of Barton Farm, Bradford on Avon (in the back of the farmhouse) and in a stable building by the car park at the re-opened Methuen Arms at Corsham. Many more can be glimpsed while travelling around Wiltshire.

The Dovecotes and Pigeon Lofts of Wiltshire by John and Pamela McCann is published by the Hobnob Press on behalf of the Wiltshire Buildings Record, priced 14 (ISBN 978-0-946418-84-8). It is available from bookshops or direct from Wiltshire Buildings Record, Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre, Cocklebury Road, Chippenham SN15 3QN (cheques to Wiltshire Buildings Record adding 2.50 postage).

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