A. O. Cooke The Pigeoncote

Chapter 13
Sussex, Hampshire, and Wiltshire

Return to the Dovecote first chapter


The vanished Herefordshire dovecote of Bosbury had, as was pointed out, strong claims for its inclusion in the record given here. But it was not unique, others of its kind remaining. This, unhappily, is not the case with one about to be described, and the vandalism which permitted the destruction of a building absolutely unique should not go unrecorded and uncensored.

Towards the close of the eighteenth century the dovecote which then stood among the ruins of Lewes Priory, Sussex, was deliberately "pulled down for the sake of the materials."

This extraordinary building, almost certainly unmatched in England, was of cruciform shape and unusual size. The longer arm, which pointed north and south, was eighty-one feet three inches long, the cross-arm being a foot shorter. Slightly different dimensions have been given, but those set down here are from a careful measurement of the foundations, made in 1895. Further, the eastern arm of the cross was placed slightly more towards the north than the western one.

This enormous dovecote is variously stated to have contained from two to four, or even five thousand nest-holes, as to the shape of which there is no information to be had. Over each of the four gables the roof projected in a curious and picturesque manner, giving ample shelter to the perching birds. That such a building should have been deliberately destroyed is a lasting disgrace to Sussex in particular, and to British antiquarianism in general.

Since the disappearance of the Lewes specimen the county has perhaps good reason to consider the example standing at a farm at Berwick, not far distant, as among the best which it can boast. It is a massively built square structure, with angle buttresses, and has suffered to some extent from alterations, besides being a good deal obscured by surrounding buildings. Failing particulars of its former internal arrangements, we are consoled by information as to its utility three centuries ago. This is revealed in Remembrances for the Parsons of Berwick, written by Prebendary John Nutt who commenced these notes about his parish in 1619, and died thirty-four years later. In 1622 he writes:

"The Piggeon house has paied mee tithes and doth this yeere by Nicholas Dobson now farmer thereof; it is rented at £5. a yeere but I take them in kinde and stand to the truthe and conscience of the farmer in the paying of them."

If Prebendary Nutt consumed five pounds' worth of pigeons annually, they must, considering the comparative value of money in those days, have been but rarely absent from his table. Still, there are far worse things than pigeon-pie.

Not far distant from Berwick, in a field at Charleston Farm, is another good dovecote; circular in shape, and built of flints, with a height of fourteen feet, an internal diameter of eighteen, and a tiled roof curiously finished at its apex. The walls are very thick and the door rather small. The potence is in place, as also about three hundred and fifty nests. These, though in several instances repaired with bricks and tiles, are of chalk slabs and blocks.


Try as we might ,we were unable to locate the dovecote at Charleston Farm. We did stop in at an artist workshop facility, which is located there now, but they were unfamiliar with the dovecote described by Cooke.  They did tell us of one not mentioned by him at Alciston. As you can see in the photo, this structure is in near ruin and perhaps was when Cooke did his inventory. The dovecote is believed to date to around the 14th century. All is better now though, as the trustees of the Firle estate, with the assistance of English Heritage and local councils have taken on the responsibility of maintaining this dovecote. It can readily be seen and photographed from the public road, as we did, but closer examination is possible by arrangement with the estate office , Firle, Lewes, East Sussex, BN8 6N8 telephone # 01273856

. map

Bodum Castle

Bodiam Castle

Another dovecote not mentioned by Cooke is the one found at Bodiam Castle.  The Castle construction began in 1385, and the dovecote, being an intregal part of the structure, must date from that period.  The Castle is now in the good hands of the National Trust, which it acquired from Lord Durzon in 1926. From the exterior, it is nearly impossible to tell this tower served as a dovecote. One can barely see the birds' entrance on the top floor, directly above the window on the floor below the cote. The ground level of this tower was the castle's well. While the towers look, and are indeed, round from the outside, the interior is a hexagon, as can be seen from the interior view. If you look carefully, you can see the entrance above the window from the interior view as well. The opening becomes larger in the interior and is much easier to see.  The roof, unfortunately, is absent. The nest boxes are in the standard checkerboard pattern, and each row has a landing ledge. There are 42 in each full course with 11 or 12 courses, so while not exceedingly large, 400 plus breeding pair could supply squabs mapfor a fairly large crowd.   This was probably inaccessible at the time Cooke did his inventory, but is very accessible now that it is part of the National Trust's purview, and is certainly worth a visi

East Grinstead

East Grinstead

Quite by accident, we ran across this home with an attached dovecote in East Grinstead. The dovecote is just a couple of blocks from the town center. It certainly attracted our eye, and a neighbor came over and told us they used to have white pigeons when he first moved there, but the new owners have not used it for a cote. He believed that it was built around 1800, and it appears to have been a bit of a folly even at that time, since the architecture of the rest of the structure really is not very harmonious with the dovecote. Of course, it is also possible that the home has been extensively altered since the initial construction. Since we did not have the opportunity to explore it further, no confirmation or details are available.   This picture is taken from the public sidewalk in front of the home.


Dovecote octagaon


Another dovecote not mentioned by Cooke is at Nymans, and perhaps would not have fit his criteria in any event, being more of a folly than a working dovecote.  It is in Nymans Garden, one of the beautiful gardens of the Sussex Weald maintained by the National Trust.  The garden was created in 1890 by Ludwig Messel.  The dovecote is built into the garden wall, and was most certainly intended to be ornamental.  Along with the dovecote, the garden and house are certainly worth a visit. Unfortunately, no access was provided to the dovecote and staff on site did not have any additional information about it, so we can't provide much more information than the pictures.  It appears to used as a garden storage area as well as a dovecote at present.  As you can see the shared use has not inhibited the pigeons from enjoying their lovely home.


In the middle of a field at Treyford Manor Farm is a rectangular stone dovecote in good repair, a little over twenty-five feet long, by nearly twenty wide. The ridged roof is of tiles. The walls are little less than three feet thick, while the door, now altered from its former size, was very narrow, with an ogee arch. The height to the eaves is about eighteen feet. More than five hundred L-shaped nest-holes are in place. The Manor Farm itself is dated 1621, and the dovecote may quite well be older by at least a century.

Trotton, click for larger image

At Trotton, near Midhurst, a square four gabled seventeenth-century dovecote stands in a garden. The walls, three feet thick, are twenty five in length, the total height to the gable ridge being thirty-four. The building, which is dated 1626, has a small Tudor door way, with a window similar in style.

We had the unfortunate experience of meeting the "owner" of this lovely dovecote on September 19, 2006.  As always, we walked around the town looking for the dovecote, but without luck.  We noticed some new construction proceeding near the church, and walked down the drive to the construction site.  We then noticed that it was actually a very old home that had been completely gutted inside and about a dozen craft persons were working on the inside.  We exchanged normal pleasantries and informed the folks of our quest.  They told us that we were in luck and that the very dovecote stood out back by the garden down the walk about 100 feet.  We noticed that work was being done to the garden and dovecote as well, but it all did appear to be lovely restoration work.   We had only been there about 5 minutes, just enough time to take a few pictures, when a very, very agitated lady come shouting that we were trespassers and that she had called the police.  We informed her that we had walked down the drive and that the workmen had directed us to the dovecote.  She yelled, "they are not the owners.  They can't give you permission to come onto my property."  We apologized for the intrusion and said we would be happy to wait for the police to explain what had occurred.  But she would have none of it and continued to yell "get out, get out."  We naturally obliged.  It did cast a pall on the rest of the trip, which made us hesitate to walk down a drive to knock on the door for fear of a similar experience.  Naturally, we strongly discourage anyone from attempting to visit this site without prior written approval.  Don't even walk down the drive to ask permission.  We wondered at the time if she may have been so agitated because of some violations to her building approvals, since we were taking pictures.  Like we said, the entire house was gutted.  Perhaps a local planning department visit to the site would shed some light.

Inside are twelve hundred L-shaped nests; also, at a height of nine and eighteen feet respectively, a six-inch ledge of stone, the under edge of each being chamfered. A local suggestion is that these were the supports for two dividing floors, the building having once contained three stories; but there is no trace of beams, and it is more probable that the two ledges were provided, partly as alighting-ledges, partly as a safeguard against rats. In any case they are an unusual feature and add largely to the interest of the whole.

With a review of the photograph, it becomes rather obvious that Cooke's supposition was correct. Not only are there no traces of supports, but the nest holes directly above and below the ledge would have been blocked if ever a floor had ever been present. There has been some discussion of late about the real threat of rats being virtually non-existent. But that does not bear very good evidence against such a purpose. All one needs is that the builders believed there may have been such a threat. The actual existence of the threat is rather immaterial.


Trotton nest boxes

Trotton ceiling, click for larger image


Basing House

Few Hampshire dovecotes can hope to rival in interest the one specimen that can be mentioned here - that found at Basing House, a place which bulks so large in history. Basing House was, under the care of its owner, the Marquis of Winchester, a stronghold of Royalist faith and endurance through a portion of the Civil War, sustaining sieges during upwards of two years, until at length stormed and destroyed by Cromwell early in October 1645. The importance attached to its fall may be judged by the reward of two hundred pounds awarded to Colonel Hammond, who carried to London the good news of the success; and a certain Mr. Peters dilated in glowing terms to a rejoicing Parliament upon the magnitude of both the place and victory. The surrounding fortifications were over a mile in extent; the Old House had stood for several centuries, a "nest of Idolatry"; the New House was furnished" fit to make an emperor's court." One bedroom alone contained furniture to the estimated value of some thirteen hundred pounds. The place was provisioned for years; four hundred quarters of wheat, hundreds of flitches of bacon, beer, "divers cellars-full, and very good" - a point on which Mr. Peters was qualified to judge, having tasted the same.

No less than seventy-four defenders of the stately house were slain, including one woman who had provoked the soldiers by her "railing," and an officer whose height is given as nine feet! The place was plundered, fired, laid in total ruin.

Mr. Peters further speaks of the beef, pork, and oatmeal laid in store; but there was another source of food-supply, of which the gallant garrison no doubt made use - the dovecotes, standing one at either end of a long garden wall. One of the two at least was almost certainly in place when Basing House was stormed three centuries ago, although it hardly dates, as reported locally, from the eleventh century. The second dovecote, a thatched building, is of doubtful age.
The one which doubtless furnished to the garrison a welcome store of fresh and appetizing food is an octangular brick building with sides seven feet in length. The roof, also octagonal, is of old brown flat tiles. In one section of the roof, that immediately above the door, there is a wooden gable with four tiers of entrance-holes, the holes being placed in tiers of one, two, three, and four. The apex of the roof is topped by a stone pillar carrying a knob.

The walls are two feet thick, the door five feet in height. There are five hundred L-shaped nest-holes, with a potence in good order.

Passing now westward into Wiltshire, it is possible that, to readers well grounded in the works of Richard Jefferies, there will occur a curious omission; dovecotes are surely never mentioned in his most delightful books. Yet it is difficult to think of any building that, for its uses and associations, ought to have appealed more strongly to his tastes. Surely among the farms he haunted, the old villages in which he loved to wander and to dream, somewhere a dovecote stood.

One at least stands in the old garden of the now deserted manor-house of Lydiard Millicent, a village to the west of Swindon, and not difficult of access from Purton station. It is a square brick building, standing at the junction of three fruit-tree-covered walls. Its walls are twenty feet in length, its height about thirty. The roof of old Cotswold stone tiles is very picturesque; four gabled, with the central cupola crowned by what appears to be the mutilated figure of a pigeon, or at least a bird. There is a "practicable" door on the west side, another, now bricked up, being opposite. Inside are more than one thousand simple oblong nests, together with a potence. The building seems to date from the time of Anne or the early Georges.

A large oblong stone dovecote, with a hipped and stone-tiled roof, stands in another Wiltshire garden, at the house known as Jaggard's, Corsham. Although it measures twenty-six feet long by twenty feet in width it only holds about two hundred nests, some few of which are tenanted today. One of the two doors is modern, and the building generally has suffered considerable alteration, the lower part having served as a cowhouse.

A circular stone example, with a stone-tiled roof and small arched doorway, is in the yard at Wick Farm, Lacock. "Wick" was the pseudonym that Jefferies gave to his old home of Coate; was it this place he had in mind? The building, which may very well date from as early as the fourteenth century, contains about five hundred nests, as well as the remains of a former potence.

Marwell Hall picture

Kieran Gillingham

provides us with a wealth of information, including pictures, about Marwell Hall in Hampshire.  The dovecote had been converted for primarily dairy use, and may explain why Cooke overlooked it during his inventory.

Marwell Hall was built in the early 14th century (around 1320) by Walter Woodlock, a relative of the Bishop of Winchester. It was a timber-framed structure of the type known as a base cruck, in size about 8 meters by 13 meters. Over the centuries many alterations were made, but the original medieval hall remains as the core of the building. In the mid-1500s, ownership passed to Sir Henry Seymour, brother of Jane Seymour, Henry VIII’s third wife. Henry VIII is said to have been a frequent visitor and it is rumored that he had a private marriage ceremony at Marwell Hall before his official one. Jane Seymour's son, Edward VI, is said to have visited the Hall, and the Royal arms and the initials E.R. can be seen carved over the fireplace in the Hall.

Dovecote location mapKieran notes that the dovecote is rated Grade II, being a square design 17th Century dovecote. (Part of the dovecote may even be a bit older as it is depicted on a site map dated 1615.)  The walls are three feet thick, of flint and brick, with the infill primarily consisting of flint rubble and some re-used stone.  At present only the rear wall supports next boxes.  This wall essentially had another wall built in front of it and this new wall contains 175 L-shaped brick nesting boxes, of the standard checkerboard design laid against the existing wall. The building was converted to a dairy in the 1800s,with a patterned tiled floor and plastered walls, which totally covered, and in this case preserved, the older nest boxes.  It was discovered that the other three walls also contain nest boxes of a much earlier date, which are inside the original walls and made of chalk block, very old timbers, and brick. These nest boxes are circular in shape with the entrance to one side. It is estimated that there were around 700 nest boxes in total originally. These were then reduced to one wall of  175 “modern” nest boxes made in brick at some point before the building was converted to a dairy. There are remains of birds' nests in some of the nest boxes, made of twigs, grass, old seeds, fruits and some small bones. There are also thousands of deep scratches around the nest boxes which are probably from the birds' claws trying to get a grip on the wall over the centuries. These original nest boxes have not been formally dated yet, but the nest remains are being studied and the contents identified. The building has brick dressings, and the hipped roof is currently tiled with a wrought iron weathervane at the top.   Although the roof is very old, as attested by the oak timbers, it obviously has been changed in the dovecote's history. A cupola probably existed where the weathervane now sits as means of ingress and egress for the birds. Marwell Wildlife intends to sympatheticaly restore the dovecote and use it as an interpretaion centre for Marwell Hall`s History, as well as telling the story of the dovecote. The nest boxes would then also be on show to the public as well as any other important artifacts. While the site is open to the public and the dovecote may be viewed externally, access internally will not be available until the retoration has been undertaken. Meanwhile if you cannot visit the site in person, then at least visit the Marwell Wildlife web site.


One of the most curious and interesting of Wiltshire dovecotes exists at the ancient manor-house of Wilcot, near Pewsey, a place mentioned in Domesday Book, and still exhibiting traces of monastic buildings. The "Monks' Walk" is the name given to a path beside the ponds known as the "Eel Stews"; and close by is what is very possibly the almost equally ancient dovecote, a circular brick building with a cone-shaped roof. Above the low doorway is a small square grated window.
dovecote The door gives access to four steps, the dovecote's floor being several feet below the level of the ground outside. We shall shortly see an even more striking example of a dovecote being partly underground. The internal diameter is some twelve feet, the height to eaves about eighteen.

About five hundred L-shaped nest-holes still remain; so, too, does the main beam of the potence, with some portions of its ladder-bearing arms.

We found this dovecote at the Manor House in Wilcot, a quiet and charming village. The only disturbance to its peace was caused by us, almost getting run into by the owner of the Manor House, whose way we accidentally blocked as he was leaving, to his great irritation. Fortunately, he did not immediately return, and the lady of the house, whom we had not so inadvertently irritated, let us look at the dovecote.

mapIt is charming, as the photo to the left shows, round, made of brick and stone, with a thatched roof and an ornamental cupola of wood with a metal roof. The lower floor is partially below ground-level. The dovecote is entered through an arched doorway with ornamental brickwork. A  new concrete "floor" has been installed about eight feet above ground level dividing the dovecote into two stories. Access to the top story is only available through a window above the door. The nest holes in the lower half of the dovecote have been filled in. The wall is approximately 3 feet thick.

square brick dovecote

A very interesting dovecote enjoys a delightful situation in a corner of the rose-garden at Fyfield Manor, near Pewsey, a house which, dating in the main from Tudor times, has details of still greater age. The dovecote, twenty five feet square, is built of alternate courses of brick and stone; has a tiled roof, with cupola and weather-vane; a single window; and three hundred and sixty-five L-shaped nest-holes, provided with very narrow alighting ledges. The walls are four feet thick, the doorway four feet six by two feet three. The upright of the potence still survives.

The number of nest-holes - one for each day of the year can hardly have been a matter of chance. The same number occurs in some other examples.

We did find two other dovecotes in Wiltshire, again showing that a few were missed in Cooke's survey. One is at Netheravon, and is owned by English Heritage. It stands in an old orchard, in what would be a charming spot if only the military hadn't built a hideous building, mapcomplete with barbed wire fence just adjacent. The picture at left, of course, eliminates that eyesore. The dovecote is square, made of brick, and dates from the 18th century. It has 700 nest holes,which we photographed through a hole in the door. We could not get inside.

nestoles The arrangement of the nest holes is a bit unusual.  They are constructed of larger coarser bricks laid against the outer brick wall and are not incorporated into the exterior wall., which is the more common construction technique. They are of the more traditional checkerboard pattern with an-L shaped nest. Each row probably alternates, with the leg of the L going to the right on one row, and then left in the rows immediately above and below.  The nest boxes are only about nine inches high.



The second dovecote is at Avebury, near the museum, manor house, and Stones Restaurant. It is round, made of stone, with a decorative cupola. The National Trust has seen fit to retrofit the use of this great old dovecote as a storage area for gardening implements.  Luckily, this reuse, while not highlighting the historical significance of this building or the important part it probably played in the lives of the inhabitants at the time, does not damage the building in and of itself. One must hope that the present disregard of the dovecote's historical and architectural importance, will not lead to the slow deterioration of the structure.


tower dovecote

Bemerton Farm

A reader of this piece, Rog Frost, has been kind enough to send us a wonderful picture of yet another dovecote in the area of Wiltshire, at Bemerton Farm, which lies between Salisbury and Wilton. Unfortunately, Mr. Cooke does not mention the dovecote at Bermerton in his book, even though it was of rather recent vintage at the time he cataloged them. Mention of it is made, however, in Peter & Jean Hansell's more recent work Doves & Dovecotes.

It is architecturally unusual in style and features, and is a fine dovecote. Mr. Frost writes,"The whole site is 'odd' and, no doubt, in the Russian style. It all seems to be somewhat derelict at present and its site, very close to a busy A road, although hidden from it, is hardly wonderful."

It was constructed for both pigeons and chickens. The pair of stepped stone ramps may have provided an entrance for hens, while the two rows of pigeon flight-holes pierce the upper wall. It has several quaint Gothic features and hagstone walls . It was built to please a Russian countess, the owner at that time.

image of book
Dovecote: Table of Contents
chapter button chapter number  next button

Return to top  Email the Bookstore