A. O. Cooke The Pigeoncote

Chapter 5: Stropshire

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Even our cousins from America, flying travelers though they be, intent on seeing the cream of Europe in a month and England in a week, may yet take back with them across the sea the picture of a Shropshire pigeon-house. Let them, upon their way to Chester, call at Shrewsbury for an hour or two; and, having admired to the full that fine old Border town, where you may listen to Welsh sermons on a Sunday, hear Welsh spoken freely in the streets on market days, - then let them ask to be directed to Whitehall, a sixteenth-century mansion of the suburbs, lying a little way across the English Bridge and close beside the Abbey Church. Here they will find as fair a dovecote as the county has to show, - and that is saying much.Stropshire dovecote

Just as these words are being written the old house is undergoing conversion into an hotel. Its builder and first owner, Richard Prince, a "proud Salopian" of Elizabethan days, thought little, as he reared his stately dwelling where the Abbey grange had stood, that it would one day harbour the chance guest. who comes and calls for cheer, and pays his bill and goes his way with little further thought for house or host. And indeed the visitor whose luck may bring him to Whitehall, though he may give but little thought to either Richard Prince or present host, is hardly likely altogether to neglect the house. For he will take his ease amid ideal surroundings; the perfection of Elizabethan architecture, filled internally with furniture and tapestries and pictures, all in keeping with the setting they adorn. In the old garden stands the dovecote, one of the most interesting that Shropshire owns. Within the last century it has indeed been shorn of the full charm of its former surroundings; for a fine group of larches that stood near it, said to have been the earliest planted in the county, has now disappeared. Gone, too, the grand old walnut-tree, with trunk that measured sixteen feet in girth, and boughs that spread their shade for twenty yards around. We will not grudge them; for the dovecote still adorns the junction of two tile-topped garden walls. And where, indeed, could it be better placed? Has not Trigg included dovecotes, and most rightly, among "garden ornaments"? The building is of brick, octagonal; inside are some five hundred nests, with potence and its ladder still in good repair.

The tiled roof, also octagonal, is crowned by a high cupola, and small rectangular windows are set high in the walls. Between these windows and the eaves we find a feature which, while a welcome ornament, forms subject of discussion and dispute; a very beautiful arched corbel-table made in moulded brick.

The dovecote is generally referred to the same period as the mansion, which was built by the aforesaid Richard Prince, between the years 1578 and 1580, on the site of the grange belonging to the Benedictine abbey, dissolved in 1539. The Abbey Church, as has been said, still stands, and the refectory pulpit maybe seen in an adjacent yard. It has been urged by architectural experts that a corbel-table such as this was an unusual feature of Elizabethan times, and one unlikely to have been produced by any architect employed by Prince.

A possible explanation of this feature, a great addition to the beauty of the pigeon-house, is to be found by an examination of the lower portion of the walls and of the foundations upon which they stand. These are of stone and are octagonal. It seems possible, therefore, that the monks of the Abbey had an octagonal dovecote of stone on this same spot; that Richard Prince's builder pulled it down, and rebuilt it in brick, being careful to reproduce a former corbel-table. The point is one on which we may well hesitate to dogmatise, preferring to fall back upon the placid prudence of George Eliot's Old Leisure - "happy in his inability to know the causes of things, preferring the things themselves." And certainly between enjoyment of this corbel-table and a learned explanation of its presence few would hesitate to make their choice.

The lower portion of the wall to which the dovecote joins is old, with many old bricks built into the upper part. Close by is the monks' barn, much modernized, but happily still covered by its ancient roof of stone.

Only some few degrees less charming than the Whitehall dovecote is the excellent example to be found at Henley Hall, near Ludlow, lying south of Shrewsbury by some twenty miles. It is of about the same period as that at Whitehall, or perhaps somewhat later. It lacks the corbel-table, and is rather broader in proportion to its height; but the wide eaved lantern has a very pleasing effect; and the roof, although its tiles are comparatively modern, is agreeably broken by four dormer -windows, one in each alternate section of the octagon. The length of each of the eight walls is ten feet; height to the eaves about fifteen.

The potence inside is in good working order, while of the nests, nearly six hundred in number, some are still occupied by pigeons, and the building has a cheerful, thriving, well-kept air. With regard to the nests it is interesting to note that the inner arm of the L--turns to the left in every tier; a rather unusual variation from the more general practice by which, when the direction does not change with each tier, the turn is to the right. Such are the little differences for which the dovecote-lover early learns to look.

The doorway is quite noticeably narrow, being two feet two inches wide, though nearly five feet high; while for a brick dovecote of this period the walls are unusually thick - thirty-four inches.

Similar, both in shape and material, to those already described is the dovecote standing in a field at Chetwynd House, near Newport. Its history, prior to the present ownership, which dates from 1808, remains a blank. It is smaller than the one at Henley Hall, the total wall length being no more than sixty feet. The roof, its tiling modern, has a lantern with glass windows, and a weather-vane above; there is also a trap for catching the birds. The potence still exists, and the six hundred nest-holes are L-shaped. The building is not only in good repair, but is still applied to its original purpose.

A dovecote existed until comparatively lately in the park at Tong Castle, but was pulled down on account of its "dangerous" condition; though whether the park was a public thoroughfare and the safety of way farers affected, and what insurmountable difficulties rendered its repair and preservation impossible, are points on which no information can be given. Involved in similar darkness are the causes which brought about the destruction of the old dovecote formerly standing near the rectory at Llanymynech, a village close to the Montgomeryshire border. This was demolished by the rector; not - be it noted well - the present rector, who, with the villagers, deplores the loss.

Most probably of sixteenth-century work is the circular brick dovecote at the Lynches, an old house which stands not far from Yockleton, a station on the Shrewsbury to Welshpool line. Comparatively small, it is only fifty-three feet in circumference, and is re-roofed with modern slates. Its walls are thick, its doorway small, its potence still in place. The nest-holes, plain rectangular recesses, are still occupied.

"Cannot this vaunted Shropshire show us dovecotes dating from a period prior to Elizabethan times?" exclaims some reader, eager for the hoary stones of Norman work. The Whitehall dovecote, beautiful in form and decoration, easily accessible to visitors to Shrewsbury who are pressed for time, was chosen for our early notice upon that account, and it has led the way to others of its age and style. But there are far older dovecotes to be found in Shropshire; and in quest of one of these we may betake ourselves to the most pleasant garden of the White House, Aston Munslow, a place lying north-east of that important local junction, Craven Arms.

The White House dovecote is a round stone building, very obviously of Norman date; fairly large, with a circumference of seventy-five feet and a height to the eaves of fifteen feet. One of its points of greatest interest is the thickness of the walls - four feet, while those at Garway, it will be recalled, are but three feet ten inches. The entrance is a very narrow one.

There is no potence now remaining, but we can still see the socket-hole in which the lower end was placed; also a remnant of the beam itself. The nest-holes, numbering about five hundred, are L-shaped. There is a string-course placed unusually low down - some two feet only from the ground.

Unhappily, during the owner's temporary absence from the property, the roof fell in; but some of the stone tiles which covered it have been preserved, together with the wooden pegs that held them in their place. These tiles were of a small size on the upper portion of the roof, becoming larger towards the eaves.

The fall of the roof was, unfortunately, followed by disaster to a section of the walls themselves; an accident not very frequent in a dovecote of this shape and massive build, which usually proves capable of standing not a little buffeting from time and weather without giving way. It would be a very serious loss to Shropshire if this dovecote were allowed to disappear, since, judging from the thickness of its walls and other signs, it can be little later in its date than that at Garway. But happily the owner of White House is now the occupier also, keen to check all chance of further harm.

Not differing greatly in regard to style, nor probably in age, is the fine dovecote standing in the grounds of one of the most charming of old Shropshire mansions, Shipton Hall, in the Much Wenlock district. Shipton itself, once a seat of the Myttons, is a fine Elizabethan house, restored - and well restored - in George the Second's reign.

Disaster has been busy with the dovecote here. The roof, which bore a cupola, has fallen in. The walls still stand - four feet in thickness, with a doorway which, though wide, is little more than four feet high.

Inside is a potence, and, still more interesting, about four hundred nest-holes, thirteen inches deep, and rounded at the back, a form but seldom seen. Surely such shape, though doubtless giving extra trouble to the builder, meant additional comfort to the birds. These rounded nests alone would be enough to date this dovecote from a long-past day, when time and trouble were nothing as compared with the result desired.

Also in this district, in the garden of the rectory at Harley, is a square brick dovecote, from the loft of which the nests have been removed. A trap-door in the roof of the lower story gives access to this loft, the ascent having formerly been made by pegs driven into the wall as a foothold. The little building is of no great antiquity or importance, but a dovecote in a garden is not willingly passed by.

At Bourton Hall, another house of interest near Wenlock, is a solidly built square dovecote of stone. The length of each wall is eighteen feet, and the height to the eaves twenty. The building has been turned into a storehouse and all trace of nests has disappeared.

In the garden of Thonglands, a farmhouse partly of Elizabethan timber-work and partly of still older date, lying in one of the most charming of all Shropshire's charming districts -

the secluded valley of Corvedalc there is a circular stone dovecote. The roof has fallen in, and the walls, burdened with a weight of ivy, are upon the way to follow suit. Inside is the comparatively small number of two hundred and fifty nests, arranged in ten tiers, and all plain oblong recesses. There is no sign of any potence having been in use. The walls are only thirty inches thick, a fact which seems to negative the bold opinion offered by a villager that it might date from "in the Roman times. " Some speak of it, however, as of fourteenth-century date; in any case it merits to be better cared for than is now the case.

At Rowton Hall, Broseley, a sixteenth-century house best reached from Coalport station, there is a massive dovecote built of brick, eighteen feet square and over thirty feet in height. It was at one time even higher, having a tiled roof and loft. The present roofing material is - horribile dictu - corrugated iron, surely the last indignity that such a building can be called upon to bear. The walls are three feet thick, the doorway noticeably small. About one thousand nest-holes still remain, rising from the ground level to the roof. At Coalport and Broseley we are getting into the brick-and-tile making district of Shropshire, and it is therefore more interesting than surprising to see that the bricks used for the nests were specially moulded for the purpose.

As Herefordshire at Mansel Lacy, so Shropshire in more than one instance exhibits accommodation for pigeons fashioned in the fabric of the dwelling-house itself. This is so at Ticklerton Hall, a house built near Much Wenlock in the reign of Charles I.; where, in addition to a square dovecote, there are pigeon-holes in one of the house-walls. At the Woodhouse, a small dwelling of Jacobean period in Wyke, a dovecote exists in the attic gable. Finally, at Hungerford, lying between Ludlow and Munslow, there is a third instance of this kind. In a stone house of Georgian date two wings projecting at the rear are linked together by an overhanging roof which forms a covered balcony, and is believed intended as a shelter for these birds. It is impossible to look upon provision of this kind without an understanding of the great importance formerly attached to pigeons as a source of food-supply.

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