A. O. Cooke The Pigeoncote

Chapter 7: Northampton, Buckingham, & Huntingdon

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Newton dovecote from Cooke's book

Newton, click for larger image

Newton plaque, click for larger image

Newton door, click for large image

Newton interior, click for larger image
Passing eastward, the player at this game of dovecote-hunting finds himself growing "warm" on entering Northamptonshire.  Dovecotes are numerous, though many have now disappeared; they are curious in being for the most part either square or oblong, though circular and octagonal examples are by no means absent; while many are but a short distance from the county town.

Let us award first place to a fine dovecote of unusual size. It will be found at Newton-in-the-Willows, a small village lying a little to the west of Geddington.  Church, village, dovecote stand apart from one another; the last-named, lonely in a field, is all that now remains of a former manor-house belonging to the Tresham family.

Its size is most unusual; fifty-three feet nine, by twenty-three feet seven; the height to the eaves twenty feet, and to the roof-ridge about thirty-five.

Like similar pigeon-houses of this shape in Scotland, - where, however, they are mostly covered by a lean-to roof - the building is divided into two compartments of equal size, the party-wall being carried through the roof, which is of Colly Weston slabs.  Each section of the roof has a small lantern to give entrance to the pigeons, furnished with alighting ledges facing south and north.

The walls, of local limestone, have a marked "batter" sloping slightly inwards as they rise On three sides they are blank, being broken on the south side only by a heavily barred window giving light to each compartment, with a door to each. The doorways are noticeably small; three feet four inches high, and two feet wide. The doors themselves are almost certainly original, being made of solid oak four inches thick.

In the middle of the south wall, between the windows, a stone slab bears the name "Maurice Tresham" in raised lettering. Above, at the end of the table-course over the dividing-wall between the two compartments, is the device of the Tresham family, a triple trefoil. This is repeated on the north side. and again on a stone which caps the ridge.

Such is the only attempt at ornament on this great dovecote, and the building would present a somewhat bare and forbidding appearance, had not its old stones "weathered" to a richly variegated hue, largely due to the growth of many-coloured lichens.

Each of the two compartments has accommodation for two thousand pairs of birds. The nests are empty now; but in the spring and summer wild bees make their nests in interstices in the walls; while daffodils and snowdrops, springing here and there about the meadow, tell of the old manor garden that has passed away.

The dovecote's builder was, there can be little doubt, the first of several Maurice Treshams known to have existed in the family. He was born in 1530 and came into the estate when only eight years old.
We visited and took these photographs on October 7, 2006. This immense dovecote still stands by itself in a field with a backdrop of a small hill with woods. Standing there all alone, it feels even larger than Cooke described. This is especially true when viewed from a slight distance, when one surmises that the door would be about six feet high, which as Cooke noted, it is not. While a few pigeons were found in the dovecote, it is now mostly frequented by sheep, which gain entry through the small doors. The door frame is still in very nice condition, as can be seen in the photo, but sadly the doors appear to have been removed to provide easy access for the sheep. The name plaque is still visible and in fair condition. From ground level we could make out that it said Ma????? Tresham. This fits with exactly what Cooke described, as he read it as Maurice Tresham. A triple trefoil stone decoration above the name plaque appears to have been recently repaired, so someone is still caring for this dovecote in a loving way.

Cooke did not describe the 2000 or so nest holes he found, and we certainly did not try to count them all growing weary after counting just one end gable at 277. It appears that the bottom two courses have been filled in at some time. You can make them out, along with the landing ledges the birds were provided with, even at the very lowest level. The nest hole construction is the standard checkerboard design. A potence clearly would not have worked in this structure, so a ladder or scaffolding of some type must have been in place for harvesting the squabs.  There is no remaining evidence of either, however.

This is not an easy dovecote to find. We found the village, but then had to cast about, and finally found a farm shop called Dovecote Farm, which we thought might  be a clue.  However, no one working there that day knew of a dovecote or knew why the shop was named Dovecote Farm.  Undeterred, we poked around a bit and found a path leading off to the left of the shop, into a field, down a hill, and then to the left to the dovecote.  It is a bit obscured by a grove of trees, so is quick in surprising and delightful to come suddenly upon a view of such a large and lovely dovecote.  It is a walk of perhaps 1/4 mile from the shop in a field with cows and sheep
Newton interior, click for large image Newton interior roof, click for larger image map

Harleston dovecote The village of Harleston, four miles distant from Northampton on the Rugby road, offers a dovecote very different from the Newton specimen, alike in situation, shape, and size. The village itself is delightful, with its houses built of local sandstone, roofed with thatch or tiles; the dovecote, far from standing lonely and deserted in a meadow, peeps upon us from behind a garden wall.It is a round building of local sand and ironstone, in some measure ivy-grown. The roof, renewed three-quarters of a century ago, is of the well-known local Colly Weston slates, and is topped by an octagonal lantern and a weathervane. The wall is "set back" half-way up, with a good string-course; while a broad table-course appears immediately below the eaves. The walls, fifteen feet high, are three feet thick. Entrance is by a doorway four feet high, two feet one inch in breadth. Internally the building is divided into two stories by a modern floor, and holds about four hundred nests, now long disused.

The thickness of the walls, the small size of the doorway, are good signs of age; but it is a somewhat doubtful tradition which dates this interesting structure to 1320, the year in which the parish church was rebuilt. More probably it has existed since the first quarter of the fifteenth century.

Harleston can show another dovecote, far less picturesque, however, than the one just viewed. It is rectangular and almost square, the wall-length being twenty-one feet by twenty-three. The walls are three feet thick, but the doorway is unusually large - six feet in height, three feet three inches wide. The height to the eaves is sixteen feet. The roof, once covered with the famous local slates already spoken of, is now of small red tiles. The somewhat bald appearance of the whole is well toned down by a large pear-tree trained on the west wall, as also by the "weatherin" of the lichen-covered stones. A single window, narrow, tall, round-headed, breaks the western wall. The dovecote, probably about three hundred years of age, contains eight hundred nest-holes, all deserted now.

A word with reference to the largeness of the doorway here. Though a small doorway may be looked on as a sign of age, a larger entrance is not always indicative of modernity. The doorway, made both small and strong for safety of the inmates, was found nothing but an inconvenience when the dovecote, as a dovecote, fell into disuse, and it was desired to employ it as a stable, cart-shed, or the like; so that a low and narrow doorway has now often disappeared, being swallowed up in one of modern size. In the same way the potence, useful when employed for its due purpose, was found later to be in the way of carts or cattle, and has consequently often been cast out.

Still occupied by pigeons is the dovecote at Denton, a village six miles from Northampton, on the Bedford road. It is of limestone and circular; there are three "set-backs" to the walls,. the uppermost alone being provided with a string-course. The roof and its cupola date from the middle of the last century, but the building is much older. The doorway on the south is almost square, three feet six inches high, three inches less in breadth.
Isham, click for larger image Isham, a village lying between Wellingborough and Kettering, possesses an interesting seventeenth-century dovecote, rectangular in shape, and having its massive walls built with a slight "batter." The heavy door, thickly studded with nails, is worth noting, and the whole building is maintained in good repair. It is still tenanted by a few birds.
We found this dovecote quite easily, as it sits right next to the road across the street from the church.  It is on private property and no one was at home when we visited, so we could not explore further.  It is still in excellent condition and inhabited by pigeons.  While none were visible on the dovecote, there were many sitting on the house itself, called "Dovecote House."


Potnece Externally there is but little special interest apparent in the circular cupola-crowned dovecote standing near the mill at Warmington, a village between Oundle and Peterborough, three miles from the former place; though we shall notice that its "Colly Weston" roof is of a pleasant hue. Internally, this building, dating from the seventeenth century, has features which demand attention.
We are fortunate with this dovecote, as it has been "adopted" by the Northamptonshire County Council, which has gone far in maintaining and refurbishing it for our collective enjoyment.  The potence has been fully restored and the nest holes have been restored in varying stages of construction.  This most thoughtful preservation makes it easy to see how these very interesting nest holes were constructed.  It is actually quite amazing how the vertical supports were "dovetailed", no pun intended, into the outer walls, and supported by a lower bench.

Cooke was right on in describing this most unusual of dovecotes, and I fully believe he was correct in supposing that this dovecote is indeed not only unusual, but unique. The photographs will go far in fleshing out the text description about the construction of the nest boxes because it is rather hard to visualize from the description alone.  Not finding fault with his description, we could not do better, in part because the nest holes are so very different from any we have seen before.
So, first Cooke's description and then our photographs:.
Even the door detains us on our way within. It has two locks, the upper one of modem make. The lower lock, probably as old as the building whose occupants it was its office to secure, is of very elaborate construction. It is contained in an oak case, well ornamented with iron-work. There is a double key-hole with two separate bolts. The key, when inserted and turned in the usual way, unlocks the upper bolt. The lower bolt is withdrawn by both the position of the key and the direction in which it is turned being reversed.The woodwork of the roof is original, the main supports being two horizontal beams which cross in the centre. From each of these rises a curved piece of timber, on which is supported a circle of wood to which the rafters are fixed.The potence is still in complete order. The massive upright post, six inches by four in section, is pivoted in a wooden block in the floor and to the cross-beams which support the roof. It carries a sixteen-rung ladder, which is strengthened by diagonal struts.
Warmington, click for larger image Warmington Potence, click for larger image But it is the construction of the nests which presents the chief internal feature of this dovecote. Two feet above the floor the walls are corbelled, a shelf six inches wide being formed. From this shelf rise perpendicular slabs of wood, fixed to the wall at distances nine inches apart Similar slabs rise from the floor, in front of those upon the shelf. These uprights are connected by round wooden pegs, placed horizontally, and long enough to project beyond the front row. Upon these pegs flat boards are laid to form the nest-floors, with upright boards to serve as the dividing walls. The whole arrangement was then covered with some kind of mortar or cement, a ledge being formed in front of every tier. Such an arrangement as here seen is most unusual, possibly unique.


Warmington shelf, click for large image Warmington interior shelf, click for larger image Warmington interior, click for larger image

At Burton Latimer, three miles from Kettering, is a plain but well-built dovecote, almost identical in size and general form with that at Isham. It offers no feature of special interest; and the explorer will do well to turn his steps towards Dallington, a village but a little distance from Northampton, on the Rugby road. Here, in the grounds of Dallington House, upon the bank of a small stream, and reached through a fine avenue of elms and chestnuts, he will find one of the few octagonal dovecotes which the county offers. Dallington House, it should be noted, was built about 1720 by Sir Joseph Jekyll, Master of the Rolls, on the site of a manor-house which was once the home of Lord Chief Justice Raynsford. The dovecote was most probably erected at the same time as the present mansion.

It is a somewhat ornate, yet massive building, covered by an eight-sided ogee roof, the whole crowned by an octagonal lantern. This lantern is lead-covered, the angles of the roof of Colly Weston slabs being likewise lead-protected. The walls two feet three inches thick. are of worked ashlar, with the corner-stones of rustic work. The door, six feet in height, but less than three feet wide, has evidently been enlarged; and two out of three windows are certainly modern. The house, containing over thirteen hundred nest-holes, is now empty, and the holes by which the birds once entered have been closed.

Finally, a rather interesting dovecote is to be seen at Mears Ashby, or Ashby Mares, a pleasant village about eight miles from Northampton, on the Wellingborough road. It stands upon a sloping bank immediately to the east of the fine old Elizabethan hall, a building on the porch and leaden water-pipes of which appears the date 1637.  The dovecote is rectangular, with slightly "battered" walls some three feet thick. On both the east and west sides is a little window, with a semicircular alighting-ledge immediately in front. The roof is topped by a small wooden lantern, with nine panes of glass in each of the four sides.

Here, as so frequently elsewhere, the doorway deserves attention. Its outside measurements are four feet high, by two feet ten inches wide; but the actual space between the sill and lintel is but three feet, and between the side posts one foot eleven inches.

Mears Ashby, click for larger image
We were unable to get a better picture of this dovecote, as no one was at home when we knocked on the door. The dovecote is obscured from the street side, because it lies behind the house and several other farm type buildings, and so we had to take this picture from the parking lot of the pub next door. The wall was very tall and I needed to take this picture holding the camera over my head.  You do get a good view of the rather unusual pigeon entrance and the very nice lantern with glass intact.  


Passing now into Buckinghamshire we find several dovecotes of interest. At Haversham, in a field east of the Manor House, is a seventeenth-century example of stone; square, with a pyramid-shaped tiled roof, surmounted by a good oaken lantern. A panel in the north wall bears the legend "1665 M.T." The dovecotes still fitted with nests, and, unlike some others in the county, is in good repair.

At Clifton Reynes is, or lately was, a circular dovecote, the walls of which have a slight set-off near the top. The thatched roof is crowned by a small lantern. Nests are fitted in the thickness of the walls. But the whole building was, a short time back, in such dilapidation that it may have been pulled down.
Linford, click for larger image

At Church Farm, Edlesborough, there exists, in company with a sixteenth-century barn and the remains of a moat, a square brick dovecote built in the late seventeenth century, with a tiled roof, and fitted with brick nests. To the South of Great Linford Rectory, a building some four centuries old, is a square example of stone, with a pyramid-tiled roof and a lantern. Inside, the nest-holes are intact.

This dovecote was rather difficult for us to find, as the area is quite built out and the roads just seemed to go in circles. When we finally found it and got out of the car, we found the dovecote to be in a compound of lovely older buildings housing artists' studios and a small museum. It is hard to tell when the brick buttresses were added, but they are clearly not of the same period as the original structure.


At Tathall End Farm, Hanslope, adjoining the north end of the house, is a good square dovecote, built of stone rubble. Nests, with alighting-ledges, still remain within the upper floor; the age of the building is settled by the "T. B. 1602" which may be read over the doorway in the eastern wall.
At Newton Longueville is a manor-house built upon the site of a Cluniac priory. A dovecote stands in a field east of the house; it dates from the early sixteenth century, and is of somewhat unusual construction for this neighborhood. Its walls are of vertical timber framing, closely set; the intervals between the uprights, formerly filled in with plaster, are now closed with bricks. There is a tiled roof with a skylight, and the house is fitted with oak nests.

The dovecote at Newton Longueville was demolished in 1923. When we asked about it in the pub, the Crooket Billet, we were referred to George Hannan. He later sent a letter with this description: "It was a square building with a brick base and a timber frame with wattle and daub infill, later changed to brick. The timbers were closely set with a pyramid-shaped tiled roof, containing a skylight in the middle. The inside walls were lined with old oak cots for the doves. A survey on the building in 1920 showed it to be in a very poor state of repair, extensive subsidence and partial collapse of the roof had taken place. Attempts were made to save the dovecote in the 1920s, but failed.

Stwekley dovecote Stewkley possesses both a "Manor Farm" and "Dovecote Farm"; but it is at the former that we find a dovecote standing at a few yards' distance from the house. It is an interesting specimen of early eighteenth-century work; brick, and octagonal in form. The bricks are laid in what is known to builders as the "Flemish bond," the "headers" - those bricks, namely, which present their ends to view - being black and arranged to form a diamond pattern. The dormer window and the lantern in the roof are both modern. The string-course round the walls is made of moulded bricks, while pilasters adorn the angles. The doorway has a segmental head. Immediately above it, on a plaster panel framed in molded-brick, are the initials and date, H.G.A. 1704.
We were directed to the Manor Farm dovecote at Stwekley by a friendly man working in his yard. It is behind a gate on the grounds of a business. We took a picture or two through the gate and then took some better ones from the back yard of a newly-constructed and still vacant house next door. The brickwork on the dovecote is quite pretty. In fact, the whole village is interesting and has very old houses.  The friendly man has an outbuilding in his yard that used to be a bakery, and his own house was originally three connected cottages. October 4, 1998  We read in A Fancy for Pigeons that the darker colored was made so by placing the brick onto burning gorse bushes, a practice still used there today.  Kligerman also notes that there are still nearly a 1,000 nest holes.

Whitechurch house In Whitchurch, at a house in a lane south of the church, we find a Buckinghamshire example of pigeons being accommodated in a dwelling. In the north gable of this house are two rows of entrance-holes. Again, at Cuddington, the village club has taken possession of what was formerly Tyringham Hall, a house constructed in the seventeenth century. In one of the attics may be seen some nest-holes built of brick.
We found this very beautiful house called Tyringham Hall, with the pigeon entrance holes still intact in the gable. You can see the entrance holes just above the dormer window. It is now being used as a single family residence, and the pigeon holes are just an architectural feature of the exterior facade.  October 4, 1998


At Burnham Abbey, a little south of the main buildings, is a good sixteenth-century dovecote; square, and built of two and a quarter inch bricks. The doorway is modern, but below the eaves on the east wall is a curious little window having a three-centered head. The roof is thatched, and hipped on all four sides.
Dovecote Finally, a dovecote with fittings of unusual style stands in the grounds of the thirteenth century Notley Abbey, at Long Crendon. It is a good-sized building of stone, square, with a tiled hipped roof, and is seemingly a survival from the Middle Ages. But its most striking feature will be found within. Projecting inwards from the walls are shorter walls, all fitted with nest-holes. This arrangement, obviously economical of space, permits of provision for between four and five thousand pairs of birds. One is inclined to wonder why this method of obtaining much additional accommodation was not oftener used. The only possible objection which occurs is that of overcrowding and diminution of air-space, a point on which the medieval builder was not over strict. What is clear is that the plan was seldom followed, this being the only instance so far brought to notice.
This dovecote  was found by using a nice brochure about parish walks, which we got at a pub in Long Crendon. The easiest way to get to it is actually to walk from the village of Chearsley. The path goes through fields, across train tracks, and through some pasture land with sheep, to Notley Farm. Unfortunately, the place was crawling with mean dogs, so we did not approach the dovecote. It is in good condition on the outside, and we were disappointed to miss seeing the unusual interior. October 4, 1998. We did learn from A Fancy for pigeons that the wall are 18 feet high and 36 feet long on the long side.

The county of Huntingdon must be passed over with the notice of a solitary but very fine example - that of the beautiful dovecote standing in a small paddock at Grove House, Fenstanton, near St. Ives. It is believed to have been built about a century ago, its form and details being copied from one seen in Italy.

It is remarkable for its height; the dome, supported on six slender pillars, being fifty-two feet from the ground; the weather-vane - a cock - adds four feet more. It is a brick building, circular, with a circumference of some sixty feet. There is a handsome string-course, with some ornamental work beneath the eaves. It has four stories, and provides accommodation for about one thousand pairs of birds: The present occupants are chiefly owls and daws, who, under the genial sway of a bird-loving owner, hold their lofty fortress in unchallenged peace.

At this point, having now explored some parts of the Welsh Border and the Midlands, it may be not uninteresting to record some instances, scattered over various districts, in which pigeons were at one time suffered, even encouraged, to inhabit quarters wholly unconnected with them in the modern reader's mind. We have already seen them dwell securely in the tower of a church in Worcestershire; even more striking cases may be found elsewhere
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