A. O. Cooke The Pigeoncote

Chapter 4: Herefordshire

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elegant dovecote image


The reader may quite possibly feel some surprise at finding himself called on to commence a "survey" of our English dovecotes in a county which is both remote and little known. For this the author would perhaps venture to put forward grounds of personal predilection were he not provided with more satisfactory excuse. Herefordshire is not only rich in dovecotes of a great variety of age and form, but claims a further preeminence by possessing an example which is one of the oldest and finest in England, and which can point, in proof of its antiquity, not only to its architectural style, but to the quite indisputable date the builder graved upon its stone. It is to this most interesting of Herefordshire dovecotes that we will first turn.

More than one route offers by which to reach the secluded and extensive parish of Garway, lying on the south-west border of the county; but most to be recommended to the pedestrian, both for beauty of scenery and interest of association, is that which leads him from Pontrilas station, twelve miles south of Hereford; follows the valley for about two miles to Kent church Court, where the adjoining church disputes with Monnington-on-Wye the claim to be the burial place of Owen Glendower (Glyndwr, Mr. Bradley tells us it should be) - a claim which it is to be feared history can allow to neither place; and climbs the steep slope of Kent church deer-park, to emerge upon the breezy height of Garway Hill, an elevation of twelve hundred feet. Here, on clear days, the eye can wander from the Bristol Channel far up into Central Wales. Then, following the hill south, breast-high in bracken, and with soundless steps upon the sheep-cropped turf, we shall come presently to sunny Garway Rocks, and, by a winding road, with here and there a solitary farm at which to ask the way, arrive at last in sight of Garway church, which stands upon a slope above the brawling Monnow, here the county boundary.

The church itself might easily detain us long. Its tower, standing at an angle to the building, and connected with it only by a short passage; its curiously carved chancel arch; the early English arcade which screens the south chapel; these, with still other features, bid us pause. But we must content ourselves with the knowledge that, originally a preceptory of the Knights Templars, it passed, in or shortly after 1308, the year in which disaster overtook that order, into the possession of the Hospitallers. It is to the latter that we owe the grand old dovecote at the farm close by.It stands partly in the foldyard, partly in a sloping field. The door giving access to the yard is a comparatively modern innovation, the only original entrance being the one which opens on the field. The archway of this doorway has two upright stones to form the "key"; below them, filling in the arch and resting on the jamb-heads of the doorway, is a tympanum bearing an inscription. This, now barely legible, was deciphered some eighty years ago by that learned and capable local antiquary and historian, the Reverend John Webb. Dispensing with the abbreviations employed by the dovecote's builder, and accepting the almost certain correctness of the italicized words supplied by Mr. Webb from the context, we have the inscription as follows:

Anno Domini millesimo trecentesimo vicesimo sexto factum fuit istud columbare per fratrem Ricardum.

or "In the year 1326 this dovecote was built by brother Richard."

Garway House

Map to GarwayFound the dovecote, as described, but did not notice the bathing basin. The dovecote is near the church, to the south and slightly downhill, behind a house. The dovecote has a roof unlike any other we saw, starting out at the bottom shaped like a cone, then the slope changes to the vertical, maybe forming the lip of a flat roof. In the middle of this is a beehive-shaped cupola.And well and truly did this brother Richard carry out his work, with the result that it alone, of all domestic buildings of the Garway house, survives to-day; the church and dovecote - they are all that now remain. Not only is this now the case; it has been so for centuries. In a lease granted about 1520, while the "priest's chamber," stable, "cowheus," watermill are all described as, valde ruinosa et ad terram . . . prostrata - wholly ruined and prostrate on the ground - the columbarium alone is spoken of as bene et suffcienter reparatum - well and sufficiently repaired.

In the case of a circular dovecote such as we admire here, this survival after other buildings of greater size and more importance have perished is perhaps not altogether difficult to be accounted for. It may well have owed its escape from destruction to the difficulty which would-be despoilers - " squatters" eager for good building-stone, and others of like kind - would find in the selection of a fitting point on which to make their first attack. In a neglected building of rectangular form decay would not be long in setting in at the junction of walls, at doorways and around windows; and what the elements and time began, man could complete. But where will you strike first at a round, windowless building, with but one strong and narrow doorway in a wall three feet ten inches thick? The additional fact that a dovecote would yield but a small store of stone as compared with the long lofty walls of cloister or refectory, is also to be borne in mind; but it seems probable that the great Garway dovecote, like some others of its class, owes its immunity from spoliation to its shape and massive build. And we are duly thankful such should be the case.
Shortly before the clergyman already mentioned published his account, the building had advanced some distance down the easy road to ruin, imperiled by a more insidious and slow-moving foe than any stone-stealer. A seedling oak, with a young ash for its companion, had attained a goodly size upon the summit of the walls; the roots, descending towards the ground, were working deadly havoc in the masonry. But happily the landlord's agent saw the danger, and the trees have now been long removed. One crack thus opened in the wall is still seen on the right, above the door.
And this is perhaps a fitting moment to beseech all dovecote-owners not to suffer an excess of greenery upon the treasure they possess; above all to set their faces against ivy, that most dangerous foe of masonry. To turn the dovecote into a green bower may be picturesque, but means disaster in the end. Moreover the full architectural form, the frequent beauty, of such buildings is not seen if they are smothered with a mass of leaves. A fruit-tree trained against the wall will do but little damage, and will amply serve to break bare spaces; nothing more should be allowed.

The masonry at Garway is sandstone in rubble work, plastered outside, while the interior facing is of wrought ashlar. The internal diameter is seventeen feet three inches; the height from the floor, which was paved, to the spring of the vaulting, sixteen feet. The interior presents many points of exceptional interest. Windows are entirely lacking, light and air being, like the former occupants, admitted through a circular opening two feet two inches in diameter placed in the middle of the vaulted roof. In the centre of the floor was a circular stone basin, six inches deep and five feet in diameter. To this was connected a drain to supply water from outside, with another to draw off excess.

A bathing-basin is a most unusual feature, if not quite unique, in English dovecotes; one would like to know if it was upon special order or his own initiative that brother Richard placed it here. He did not hold, apparently, with those authorities who, as we saw in speaking of the Roman columbarium, disapproved of a cold bath for sitting birds.

Look now at the nesting arrangements, which could hardly have been brought to greater perfection. The number of the holes - six hundred and sixty-six - has been suggested to imply some mystic meaning, a point which shall be left untouched. They are arranged in twenty tiers of thirty-three nests each, alighting ledges being provided to alternate tiers.

Carway dovecote

The holes are of that L shape usually seen in the "best" English dovecotes. The entrance to each is seven inches square, and the hole, after extending into the thickness of the wall for seventeen inches, turns at a right angle; all the nests in one tier turn in the same direction, those in the tier immediately above it and below it being reversed. This shape, seldom seen in Scotland, afforded the birds greater seclusion and more space. The whole of the internal masonry work is of the most elaborate and accurately fitting description.

Moreover brother Richard did not limit his inscriptions to the date and statement carved above the door. Just opposite the entrance, fourteen nest-tiers from the floor, he graved the name "Gilbertus." Who was Gilbertus? We now ask in vain. Perhaps the superior of the commandery, possibly a workman who assisted Richard at his task

Some rather boastful and exulting symbols, too, he placed upon his walls. A graved cross patee, overset and lying prostrate, typifies the Templars' fall; while to its left is seen the crosslet of the Hospitallers, placed upright. Some crudely executed figures, possibly crescents, seem identical with those in London's Temple Church.

There is no potence here. The open centre to the roof, the bathing-basin on the floor, would have necessitated special arrangements which the builder evidently did not care to make. The holes are of that L shape usually seen in the "best" English dovecotes. The entrance to each is seven inches square, and the hole, after extending into the thickness of the wall for seventeen inches, turns at a right angle; all the nests in one tier turn in the same direction, those in the tier immediately above it and below it being reversed. This shape, seldom seen in Scotland, afforded the birds greater seclusion and more space. The whole of the internal masonry work is of the most elaborate and accurately fitting description.

This Garway dovecote is described with a minuteness which will not often be repeated in the book, but which is surely deserved by the present example on account of its undoubted age, the excellence of its very typical workmanship, the good state of preservation in which it remains, and the unusual provision of a bathing basin.

If Garway, for the dovecote-hunter, be the boast of Herefordshire, Bosbury, lying four miles from Ledbury on the county's eastern border, is its shame. At this village there stood, in the time of Bishop Cantilupe and of his chaplain and subsequent successor, Richard Swinfield, one of the episcopal residences of the diocese. Its church is one of several in the county in which the tower stands detached - in this instance almost certainly with a view to defence. A farmhouse on the site of a former Templar preceptory retains the name of Temple Court; and at Old Court a gateway of the palace, with a cider cellar, once the episcopal refectory, remains. But what does not remain is the old dovecote, willfully destroyed in 1884.

In a few cases only will dovecotes no longer surviving be spoken of in this volume; but that of Bosbury is particularly worthy of exemption from this rule. In the Roll of the Household Expenses of Bishop Swinfield, edited by Webb, we have a minutely detailed and extremely interesting account of the Bishop's itinerary, disbursements, etc., during a progress through his diocese in the autumn and winter months of 1289-90. Mention is there made of pigeons being taken - and paid for - from the dovecote at Bosbury on three successive days during the stay of Swinfield and his suite. Taking this record, together with Mr. Webb's statement that the dovecote, which he had seen, resembled that at Garway, there can be little doubt that, but for an act of unpardonable vandalism, Herefordshire would still possess a dovecote at the very least thirty or forty years older than the one we have just seen.

Butt House Delicate Beauty

Great size and age, solidity, absence of ornament, simplicity of form - such are the leading features of the first Herefordshire dovecote viewed. For an entire contrast let us seek the village of King's Pyon, or rather a secluded outlying farm in that parish; the Butt House, or "Buttas," lying some seven miles north-west of Hereford, in a rich grazing district where large herds of the red-coated, white-faced cattle of the county feed in the deep pastures, backed by hills and woods. The place can well be reached by going by road to Canon Pyon and then turning to the left; or it is pleasant to alight at Credenhill, the first station on the Hay and Brecon line; pass through the village, underneath the hill on which is Credenhill Camp; inquire for Brinsop, cross the old and little traveled Hereford to Weobley road, and take the shady lane which leads to Wormesley Grange. There, turning to the right, we cross a field or two and see the Butt House high upon a bank. The dovecote stands outside a yard immediately behind the dwelling, in a spot which makes it a good picture for the artist and photographer .  It stands, backed by the wooded hill beyond the field just crossed, a perfect specimen in miniature of that exquisite `` black-and-white " half-timbered architecture which is one of the chief beauties of the Welsh Border district. The upper portion has a slight overhang; the walls are ornamented with a diamond pattern, and the beams and panels richly carved.

Reader, John Jenkins reports that "This is a small delicate structure with some remarkable carving on the wood framing." Another small wood framed one is at Luntley Court. There is a picture of this one in the Hansells' books Doves and Dovecotes where it is shown propped up and in danger of falling down.  However, in their later book A Dovecote Heritage, it is shown as having been repaired. On the north side is the date 1632, with the initials K. G. E. standing for the names of George and Elizabeth Karver. As to the very probable designer of this lovely little building there will later on be more to say. There are three stories, only the upper one being fitted with nest-holes. It has been called the Falconry, and the suggestion made that the middle chamber of the three was intended to be occupied by hawks. I t seems a somewhat sinister arrangement, that of placing hawks and pigeons side by side - like caging lambs and lions cheek by jowl. But, always provided that the intervening floor was strong, the gentler occupants might in time grow fearless of their foes.

The size is small; twelve by eleven feet. A still smaller specimen of this style of dovecote stands in the garden of a house at Mansel Lacy, a pretty village not far distant, on the Hereford to Kington road. In this, the smallest dovecote of the county, the size is nine feet square. Close to the Mansel Lacy dovecote, in the gable of the dwelling-house, are pigeon-holes. The little building is much overgrown and in no little danger of decay and ruin The Butt House dovecote, kept in excellent condition, is four-gabled, and without a cupola or lantern on the roof. Luntley Court, a fine black and white farmhouse of the late seventeenth century, somewhat defaced by modern additions, stands in the not very distant parish of Dilwyn; and here we have a dovecote which, while less richly decorated then the Butt House example, has a four-gabled lantern on the roof. Though not entitled to minute description, it has one peculiarity which calls for mention. Its date is ~ 673, that on the house itself being 1674.

This might be taken as mere careless error; but the case of Luntley does not stand alone, there being other instances of such discrepancy of date. The following explanation may perhaps be suggested as acceptable. It is possible theta man about to build himself a house might prudently reflect that the work would take several months, even a year or more, while the erection of a dovecote might be easily accomplished in the course of a few weeks. A large portion of his food supply would necessarily be of home production; and he might very well decide to get the dovecote ready in advance, so that its occupants could settle down in their new home before he needed them.

Delecate DovecoteThe main road through Canon Pyon will in time bring us to Eardisland, a delightful village on the little river Arrow; here are some of the best half-timbered houses in the district, a notable example being the Staick House, immediately at the east end of Arrow Bridge. Across the stream, in a farmyard beside the water, stands a dovecote differing much in style from those yet seen

It is a square brick building, two-storied, with walls twenty feet in length. Its four-gabled roof is topped by a lantern of the same form, on the crown of which is a weather-vane in the shape of a fish - appropriate for a building on the bank of so well-known an angler's stream. The lower chamber is supplied with windows, nest-holes being found only in the loft above. This dovecote is particularly charming from the beauty of its situation and the mellow colour of its old brick walls.

The fish which forms its weather-vane reminds us of the great diversity displayed by these useful terminals. The arrow and the cock are both comparatively rare. A dragon, shield with coat-of-arms, two-headed eagle, fox, and claw, are known. In the absence of a vane the lantern is frequently surmounted by a pole and ball.

The shape of the Eardisland dovecote, and both shape and size in the Butt House specimen, preclude the probability of their containing a potence; "possibility" it is not safe to say, for potences are sometimes found in square English dovecotes, still more frequently in Scottish specimens. We shall, however, be justified, and not disappointed, in looking for one in the example next upon our list; that at Richard's Castle, a village close to the Shropshire border and best reached from Woofferton Junction, on the Hereford and Shrewsbury line. The westernmost and least frequented of the two roads running between Leominster and Ludlow must be crossed, a turn uphill being taken at the village inn.

Found Dovecote Map We also found a dovecote, with brick lower story and black-and-white upper story, in the yard of a house at the southeast quadrant of the junction of the A465 and the B4347, south of Pontrilas. It has been much modified, but is still recognizable as a dovecote.

Nearly at the top of the hill we should come to the church, with yet another of Herefordshire's detached towers; and then, still higher, find the castle after which the place is named; a wooded mound, knee-deep in nettles, overgrown with brambles, but still showing traces of a ditch and walls. This Border fortress was erected by, and took its name from, Richard Fitz Scrob, a Norman of the days of Edward the Confessor; and it shares with Ewyas, far in the south-west of the county, the distinction of being a pre-Conquest stronghold

But to discover the dovecote we need climb the hill as far as neither church nor castle. On the left hand as we ascend, and full in view, we find it standing in the garden of a picturesque farmhouse. It is a circular building of stone, its roof not only crowned by a three-gabled lantern, but broken by a trio of dormer windows These three dormers, a detail unique in Herefordshire but matched in a beautiful Worcestershire dovecote, add greatly to the attraction of this charming old building. Few dovecotes are more pleasing to the eye.

Inside, as we have said, there is a potence; also six hundred and thirty nests. The walls are three feet eleven inches thick, exceeding those at Garway by an inch, though the building can hardly pretend to rival our first specimen in age. In truth it lacks some of the austere aloofness which we may have felt about the Garway cote. This is a snug, warm, comfortable-looking building, not too old and too remote to take its share in rural life today.

Following the main road south for some six miles we come to Leominster, not far distant from which town the Arrow joins the Lugg. If we elect to take as guide the larger stream, in its now somewhat sluggish course to seek the Wye, we shall wind round the wooded height of Dinmore Hill; pass one of Herefordshire's finest country-houses, Hampton Court; and presently arrive at Bodenham and its bridge. Here, hardly a stone's-throw from the river, stands a dovecote built of brick, octagonal in shape. This, too, is an attractive little building - in a farmhouse garden, and beside a flowing stream.

At Mordiford, four miles east of Hereford, the waters of the Lugg join those of Wye. The village, one of the most charming in the county, lies upon our route to-day; for on the slope behind it is Old Sufton, where there is a dovecote which, although brick-faced, is built of stone. It is circular, but - a rather unusual feature - is topped by an octagonal lantern. On the weather-vane, a double-headed eagle, are the initials I. M., with the date 1764; the cote itself is very obviously of greater age. There is no potence, and the nest-holes are found only in the upper part.

Away to the east, some distance behind Mordiford, let us seek out Much Marcle, where, at the house called Hellens, once the home of a well-known Herefordshire authority on fruit growing and cider-making, is an octagonal brick dovecote, largely adapted to modern uses. There are some nest-holes left. Its octagonal lantern carries a flag as weather-vane; on it are the initials E. W., with the date 1753. The building itself is dated in large letters 1641 with the initials W. F. M. whose owners were Foulkes and Margaret Walwyn.


It seems as though the county's rivers might be taken as our guides. The Wye would, after many windings, bring us down to Ross; not far from Ross is Weston, where, at Bollitree Dairy Farm, there is - or was, for recent information has proved unobtainable - a dovecote which presents at least one interesting feature. It is a rectangular stone building, and at each corner was placed a guard against attacks from rats, in a form which, though recommended by the early eighteenth century Sportsman's Dictionary, is seldom seen. The safeguard was an iron angle-plate on which a climbing animal would slip and fall. The writer of the work just mentioned, adds, that they whose owners were should fall on iron spikes placed upright in the ground; but at the Dairy Farm these spikes, if ever they existed, have now disappeared; removed, quite possibly, by some humane proprietor of pigeons, who, while anxious to protect this birds, was yet unwilling to push matters to extremes against the rats. In giving to the dovecotes of this county all the space that can be spared, we have but skimmed the cream, and that with a light hand. Of more than seventy or eighty still surviving in the county, many others well deserve to be recorded, though passed over here. The briefest mention must be made, however, of the specimen at Cowarne Court, near Bromyard. This, although now covered by a cone-shaped roof of gentle slope, exhibits clear internal evidence of having once been vaulted like the Garway specimen. Its walls, too, are three feet nine inches thick, good proof of ripe old age.

At Foxley, a fine house in Yazor parish, on the broad road running west from Hereford to Hay, is the sole remnant of the former mansion of redbrick, a dovecote which, while presenting few other features of interest. is the only Herefordshire example to be hexagonal, a form which we shall rarely find in any part.

Reluctantly, and conscious that we leave full many a gem behind, we cross the county's northern border into Shropshire, a land rich in ancient houses, wooded hills and charming streams.

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