A. O. Cooke The Pigeoncote

Chapter 9 Lancashire,
Westmorland & Cumberland

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Resuming our pilgrimage and turning to the north, a pause must be made in Lancashire to notice a dovecote at Meols Hall, Churchtown, near Southport. It is of interest as being one of those oblong buildings containing two compartments, a specimen of which we have already noticed in Northamptonshire, and which we shall find common in Scotland.

Of the Meols dovecote one compartment is in ruins, and the roof of the whole building has fallen. The compartment still standing has an internal measurement of fourteen feet by twelve, and contains nearly four hundred L-shaped nest-holes. Its age is not definitely known; but the present mansion of Meols Hall stands on the site of a much older house; and the owner, whose family has been settled on the spot since 1180, tells us that a second dovecote formerly existed on a farm of the estate, but was demolished towards the end of the last century.

In Westmorland the farm of Nether Levens, near Milnthorpe, will show two dovecotes, both standing in the farmyard. The largest is about twenty-seven feet square by twenty-five feet high to the eaves, has a ridge-roof, and is divided into an upper and lower story. The nest holes have been largely filled up within recent years, and the door enlarged.

The second dovecote, also square but smaller, has a pyramid roof, with a stone ball upon the top. Like its neighbour, it has suffered a good deal of alteration. Both buildings are of stone.

Crossing from Westmorland to Cumberland, we are in a district of much interest to the dovecote-hunter, and our survey of the county's specimens may well begin with the interesting example standing in the grounds of the mansion of Hutton-in-the-Forest. Its present position is in a plantation of trees; this, we may be sure, was non-existent when the dovecote was erected, for pigeons do not like a tree-surrounded home - one reason being probably the difficulty of seeing where it lies.

The dovecote is an octagonal building of dressed ashlar, similar to that of the mansion itself, which was built from designs by Inigo Jones at intervals during the last forty years of the seventeenth century. The dovecote had been long neglected, till, some fifty years ago, attention was called to its interest by a guest staying in the house, when it was put into repair.

The potence, though without the ladder, still remains, together with about four hundred and fifty nest-holes. These are L-shaped, nine inches high, five inches broad at the entrance, and penetrating nine inches into the wall, the right-angled recess adding another ten inches. The lowest of the twelve tiers in which they are arranged is four feet from the floor, and immediately before it is a ledge six inches broad. This was evidently intended as a safeguard against rats, as the remaining ledges - one to every tier of nests - are only half the breadth. The octagonal roof is surmounted by a small lantern or "glover."

Wreay Hall has, on one of its farms, a dovecote, likewise octagonal, of dressed ashlar, and rather similar to the Hutton example. Fourteen tiers, the lowest two feet from the ground, contain about five hundred nests. The potence, or a remnant of it, is in place, and presents an unusual feature in being surrounded by a ledge or shelf. The purpose of this, if purpose there were other than to provide a finish or ornament, is hardly clear.

A third octagonal dovecote will be found at High Head Castle, near Carlisle. It is of very modest size, the external measurement of each wall being only seven feet four inches. The lowest tier of nests, three feet above the ground, is, as at Hutton, provided with a six-inch ledge in front, in this case formed of very massive stone. The building seems to be of early eighteenth-century date.

At Bunker's Hill is a very large circular dovecote, built of rubble stone, and visible from far. The field in which it stands is known as Pigeon Cote Field. The nests, numbering between five and six hundred, are L-shaped, built of brick, and arranged in fourteen tiers. The lowest tier is at the unusual height of more than seven feet above the floor; but the lower part of the building has been long used as a cattle shed, and it is very possible that formerly existing lower tiers have been removed. The dovecote is of considerable height, and sixteen feet in internal diameter; there is an open cupola upon the roof.

At Rose Castle, the episcopal palace of the diocese, we find a square dovecote. A stone above the doorway bears the date 1700, at which time Bishop Smith, a well-known benefactor to the diocese, was holder of the see; but a survey taken in the days of the Commonwealth speaks of a dovecote of "hewn stone," and it is probable that the Bishop merely executed some repairs. The building is eighteen feet nine inches square, and twenty feet high to a heavy cornice which entirely surrounds the house. The L-shaped nests, numbering about eight hundred and arranged in fifteen tiers, commence nine inches from the ground and are provided with alighting-ledges.

A dovecote presenting features of special interest stands at the hamlet of Parson by Green, in the parish of Plumbland. It is nearly, although not quite square. The lower portion was converted to the purpose of a coach-house several years ago, and a large modern doorway has been made in the north wall. The original entrance, now built up, is on the south, and very small - four feet three inches high, and less than two feet wide. A single stone forms the sill, another the lintel, and both these and the jambs are broadly chamfered. The roof has been renewed.

Apart from the old door way the chief interest lies within. The nests, once numbering about six hundred, are plain oblong recesses, but of unusually massive construction. They are built of stones six inches thick by fourteen inches square. A tier of these was laid with intervals of six inches between them, and the rows above added in the same way, the stones of one tier covering the intervals in that below. Each nest was thus six inches broad, six inches high, and fourteen inches deep. Nearly eight hundred of these massive slabs of stone, all cut to the same size, were used; and the labour and cost involved, even in times when the hand of toil might be secured for a few daily pence, must have been very considerable. The nests are now perfect only on the east and west sides of the house. The lowest tier is practically level with the ground. The tiers have no alighting-ledges, save that the east and west sides have, some four feet from the floor, a three-inch ledge.

Another square dovecote of interest occurs at Crookdale Hall, Bromfield. The shape is very nearly square, with sides of about eighteen feet, and a height of sixteen feet. The entrance for the occupants was provided by two oval apertures, placed half-way between the eaves and a broad string-course; one faces north, the other to the east. The east and west ends, which are gabled, have as ornament a ball of stone, and on each angle of the building is an urn-shaped finial. The original roofing materiel has perished, and is replaced by red tiles. The nest-holes, oblong recesses, are of unusually large dimensions - fifteen inches deep, nine inches broad, ten inches high. They are vertically above each other, have no alighting-ledges, and are built of massive flags of stone. The dovecote is of rubble, with dressed quoins.

This dovecote dates from the end of the seventeenth century, an inscription above the door running as follows:

Sr. I. B. (small heart) A. B.1686.

The same heart is to be seen on an oak pew in Bromfield church. The initials are those of Sir John Ballantyne and his wife Anne, a daughter of the Musgrave family.

This dovecote has been much altered, a new window having been made in the south wall, and a fireplace and chimney inserted on the east. These conveniences were introduced at some date prior to the early nineteenth century, at which time the dovecote was in use as a school-house. And at this school George Moore, draper, fox-hunter, and philanthropist, whose life was made the subject of a volume by the worthy Samuel Smiles, received a portion of his scanty education.

Moore had been first sent to school at Bolton Gate, where his master was one "Blackbird Wilson," a person of drunken habits and drastic educational methods, but blessed with a melodious whistle which had earned for him his common name. Moore's father, a Cumberland dalesman paid six shillings and sixpence a quarter for the boy's share of this pedagogue's instructions, but later transferred him to the care of one Pedlar Thommy, who had exchanged the calling of a wandering merchant for that of schoolmaster, and had established his headquarters in the Crookdale pigeon-house.

In a field behind the vicarage at Aspatria is a quadrangular dovecote about twelve feet square, built of rubble, and roughcast. As in the Crookdale specimen, a ledge surrounds the outside of the walls at six feet from the ground. The door has been enlarged; the nest-holes, formed of blocks of stone, and vertically over one another, are eight inches square by one foot deep. They begin at the ground level and have no alighting-ledges.

Unhappily this dovecote is at present in a grievous case. It is now quickly falling into ruin; and, owing to an uncertainty as to the shoulders upon which should fall the duty and the cost of its repair, there seems at present every prospect of its being soon numbered with the many dovecotes which have "disappeared." It is particularly unsuitable that Cumberland, a county where the dovecotes have been so carefully chronicled, should now risk losing such a good example.

Yet another fine stone dovecote stands at Great Blencowe Farm, near Penrith. Internally it measures about ten feet square. The height to the eaves is eighteen feet, and the roof, forming a four-sided prism, is topped by a stone ball, from which projects an iron spike. The building is two-storied, the upper chamber having a semicircular entrance for the birds. In the room below an ovoid aperture is placed on either side of the doorway. Above the door the initials W. T., with the date 1789, are sunk in the stone, the letters evidently standing for one William Troutbeck, formerly a dweller at the farm.

The wooden floor of the upper chamber is comparatively modern, but replaces one of older date. The nest-holes are built of perpendicular tiers of bricks, their floors being sandstone slabs. In the lower room recesses of a different shape were clearly designed to meet the needs of poultry of various sizes; an upper tier being about three feet from the ground, while that below has nests large enough for geese and turkeys.

At Corby Castle - that Corby whose atoning charms David Hume recorded in the following verse, scratched on the window of a Carlisle inn:

Here chicks in eggs for breakfast sprawl, Here godless boys God's glories squall, Here Scotchmen's heads do guard the wall, But Corby's walks atone for all.

- at Corby, on a slope above the castle, is a dovecote which, although the lover of these buildings may regard it with some satisfaction as a curiosity, is not one such as he would care to meet too often in his pilgrimage. It is a highly ornate structure in the form of a Doric temple, a little over twenty feet square, and having its front elevation adorned by a porch - which leads to nothing, the entrance being at the back. The desire for appearances has overcome the regard for utility in another detail; for, about ten feet above the ground, a ledge runs round three sides, presumably intended as a perching-place and lounge for the birds - a use to which they were effectually prevented from putting it by its being steeply chamfered to a slope.

Inside, it being no longer needful to adhere to classical design, things are more sensibly arranged. The nests, L-shaped, are placed upon each wall in fourteen tiers, fourteen in every tier. Each tier is furnished with its own alighting ledge.

Finally, though the dovecotes rectangular, there is a potence, and a somewhat elaborate one. The upright beam, twenty feet high, carries three cross-arms, each seventeen feet long and projecting upon either side. On these are borne two ladders, as was frequently the case in France; while the middle arm of the three also supports a horizontal platform about six feet square. Something of the same arrangement is occasionally seen in other dovecotes, but its purpose is not very obvious.

The Corby Castle dovecote is a late example, dating from about a century ago; it was doubtless built in 1813, when the mansion was restored in Grecian Doric style. It is almost equally certain that the present dovecote is at least the second that has stood at Corby; and very probable that its fore runner was either circular or octagonal, in which case it is easy to understand that the potence would be deemed a necessary feature of the new building.

Of a dovecote which formerly existed at Naworth Castle, only the spot on which it stood is known. That at Penrith was pulled down thirty years ago to yield to a new road. At Crofton one formerly stood in front of the house, grew to be looked on as disfiguring the landscape, and was ruthlessly destroyed. Near Cockermouth a field is still called Dove Cote Close, and a like name describes a piece of ground near Bootle Rectory.
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