A. O. Cooke The Pigeoncote

Chapter 15
Monmouthshire and Wales

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Monmouthshire is not markedly rich in dovecotes; but, taking it upon our way towards Wales, we pause to look at one or two. The first, if we enter the county from Gloucestershire by way of Chepstow - once a thriving port of entry for the wines of Spain, then for a century a sleepy country town, destined to renewed and vigorous life as an important shipyard during the late war - we find at the mansion of St. Pierre, some six miles west upon the Newport road. The dovecote is a good square structure, built of stone cemented over, with a tiled roof and several hundred L-shaped nests. It is in good repair and until lately was the home of "tumbler" pigeons, but exhibits little to detain us long

A little farther on, near the Roman town of Caerwent, we shall find the parish of LlanfairDiscoed, where, at the Court House Farm, is a substantially built square stone dovecote. The roof, which bore a cupola, has fallen in. The walls, three feet six inches thick, form a cube of twenty-one feet. That on the south side has, besides a door placed several feet above the ground, four external alighting-ledges, each with four entrance-holes. Within are one hundred and fifty oblong nest-holes, also provided with ledges. There are some remains of an old Norman castle, to which the Court House was built as successor. Over the door of the farmhouse is the warm Welsh greeting freely translatable as "though narrow be the door, wide is the welcome," with the date 1653

Llanthony Priory

"Not much is now to be seen of the next dovecote of the county, which lies in its extreme north-west corner, in a narrow slip of country that runs up between the mountainous borders of Herefordshire and Brecon. Here, hidden by hill ramparts upon either side, and lying on the bank of the swift-flowing Honddu river, is Llanthony Priory, where was unearthed by chance in 1905 one of the most curiously constructed dovecotes known. It was discovered by some workmen who were digging in a field, and its remains were at once examined by an expert. What he saw was a great part of a building of roughly dressed stone, circular, with a diameter of nearly fifteen feet. The presence of several tiers of L-shaped nest-holes, their inner arms turning right and left respectively in alternate tiers, left no doubt as to the structure's use. It had quite clearly always stood some seven feet below the surface of the ground. At a little above this height the walls began to arch inwards and were covered by a beehive-shaped roof, formed of flat stones of considerable size, placed horizontally, and overlapping each other. The inner surface of this roof was smoothly plastered with a mortar-like cement, but the outside was rough, and it was the observer's opinion that the columbarium was constructed with a view to the roof and upper portions of the walls being covered with earth-at any rate at certain times. The broken capstone of the roof was found; circular, four feet four inches in diameter, with a round central hole sixteen inches across. A chased line round the stone, half-way between the central hole and outer edge, suggested the former presence of some sort of lid. The walls were four feet thick.

The doorway, placed on the south-west, was approached between wing walls, doubtless constructed to prevent the earth from falling in. The nests, provided with alighting-ledges, varied considerably in depth, the builders having been without the guide of an even and well-defined face upon the outer surface of the walls. It seems extremely difficult to account for the dovecote being so built. A semi-subterranean situation would surely have an effect the reverse of beneficial on the health and comfort of the birds. True that the region was a wild one in the days when it was built; wild even later still, as Walter Savage Landor was to find when he took up his quarters at the Priory inn and set himself to plant the bare hill-slopes with cedars and to build himself a lordly pleasure house.

The dwellers in that lonely district looked askance upon him, high and low alike; pulled up his cedar saplings, quarrelled with him, would not pay their rents or make him justice of the peace. The house he built is there today, an empty shell, the sparrow and the rabbit its sole tenants, to remind us of the disenchanted poet's stay. But the Llanthony monks had surely other things to lose besides the inmates of their dovecote if they feared attack; it was not for the sake of safety that they built their columbarium partly underground.

Culver House

So, with the problem still unsolved, we pass to Wales. And here we find, a little unexpectedly, the name of' "culver-house," fairly familiar in parts of the south and south-east of England. "Culver" at first sight seems quite possibly akin to the "columba" of the Latins; is it a mere corruption, we may ask? So fancied Grimm, but he was wrong. For "culver" is an Anglo-Saxon word, well known in other forms. The cowslip is the "culverkeys," and you may call a fool a "culverhead." This short digression is not wholly unconnected with the first of South Wales dovecotes to be noticed here; a semi-artificial, semi-natural one. Half-natural, for it is constructed in a fissure of the cliff close by Port Eynon, on the coast between Worms Head and Mumbles; half-artificial, for advantage has been taken of the site by man. The cliff crack has, at some date now unknown, been closed in by a solid wall, sixty feet in height and ten feet thick at the base. This wall is pierced by several windows, while inside there is a rough stone stair. Further, the inner face is lined by many hundred L-shaped nest-holes. The wild rock pigeon still frequents the coast; the purpose of the unknown builder of the wall is fairly clear to attract the birds to nest in the holes he had provided, when, covering the windows with a net, he would be able to secure what he required from time to time.

This Port Eynon dovecote is most probably unique. On Caldey Island, at St. Illtyd's Priory, a religious house believed to have been founded in the sixth century, and now again occupied by monks of the order of St. Benedict, there is a rather interesting dovecote over an archway in the west wall of the garth. The buildings still surviving range in age from the eleventh to the sixteenth century, and the pigeon-loft is probably of the fifteenth. It only contains about thirty plain oblong nest-holes, each furnished with a narrow stone alighting-ledge, and pigeons are still kept. At Angle Hall, near Pembroke, is a dovecote obviously of great antiquity. It is built of rough stones of very varied size and shape; is circular, with a domed roof, in which there is a central aperture about one foot in width. The height of the walls to the spring of the dome is about twelve feet; there is a string-course at their summit, and another half-way up the dome. The internal diameter is twelve feet. A modern opening has unfortunately been made for the admittance of cattle, but the arch of the old doorway, which was five feet high by three feet wide, is seen immediately upon the right of this. The nests are not L-shaped, there is no potence, and alighting-ledges are found only here and there. The walls are three feet thick. But the most curious feature is the presence in the walls of what at first appear to be external nest-holes, dotted here and there. These are not nests, however, but lead through into the building, forming entrances and exits for the birds. Some are blocked up, but the original number was about four dozen, leading to four of the tiers. The holes take their places in order among the nest-holes proper, and were clearly no afterthought, but so constructed when the dovecote was built.

This very rare arrangement will be found repeated in some Cornish specimens, but seems to be unknown elsewhere. It would certainly lay the building open to attacks by rats and other vermin, and may probably have been abandoned upon that account. The date of the Angle Hall dovecote has been put at the twelfth or thirteenth century, and, with the exception of the rather large doorway, everything about the building points to its great age.

Angle Castle

Angle Castle, of which ruins still remain some hundred yards away, was, from 1215, inhabited for nearly two centuries and a half by the De Angulo and Shirburn families. In 1447 Edward de Shirburn dedicated to St. Anthony a little chapel which still stands in the churchyard. Dovecotes rather similar in plan and general detail to the Angle specimen - always excepting the unusual outside holes - are to be seen at the castles of Oxwich and Manorbeer. At a farmhouse called the Vann, beside Caerphilly Castle, is a fine example containing twenty tiers of-nest-holes, fifty in a tier.

At Ewenny Priory, near Bridgend, one of the most interesting buildings in Wales, and also one of the least known, we find a dovecote in an unexpected place. The Priory Church offers the rare example of a fortified religious building of pure Norman architecture. In a tower in the line of the former fortifications there may now be seen a pigeon-house, fitted with L-shaped nest-holes, the inner arms of which are unusually short and turn to the right in every case. The room's internal measurements are twenty-five by fifteen feet.

Passing from South Wales to the northern corner of the Principality, we pause before a dovecote in the island of Anglesea at Penmon Priory. It is a stone building about twenty feet square, but covered with a circular stone roof. The transition from square walls to circular roof is ingeniously effected by the arrangement of the horizontal stones of which the roof is formed; these being so laid that finally a central aperture is left. Over this is now a cupola, probably a later addition. A square dovecote offers no great prospect of a potence to be seen inside; and here there is none in the stricter application of the term. But its place is adequately taken by a central stone pillar, fitted to a considerable height with projecting stone steps which gave an easy access to the nests.

The building probably dates from about the time of Henry VIII. In the same district, at Llaneugraid, is a good Elizabethan dovecote, forming the upper story to an open shelter below. It is four-gabled, with a cupola to match; is lighted by diamond-shaped windows, and has a string-course round the walls. Inside there are about one hundred nests.

Before closing this somewhat inadequate description of a few Welsh dovecotes all that space permits a word is due to one example long since passed away. Were it in place today it would almost certainly enjoy the distinction of being the only pentagonal specimen in the kingdom. This building once stood in the courtyard of Holt Castle, Denbighshire. The fortress was itself five-sided, and the dovecote was no doubt designed to be in keeping with the whole. A ground-plan of the castle, dated 1620, shows a five-sided building marked "Dovecote" in the courtyard, and a note records it as a "decayd doue-house fiue square."

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