When we started renting our converted 16th-century dovecote in 2019, I knew little of the ancient practice of dove rearing and how it has shaped pockets of the UK landscape over the past millennium. Although a small house, our cottage would have been a substantial dovecote. It is a perfect cube, with metre-thick walls made of the limestone and flint grid very local to our part of Wiltshire.
Recently, I was given a book on dovecotes, written in 1988 by Peter and Jean Hansell. This slim volume catalogues some of the thousands of dovecotes around the country — and paved the way for a full-blown obsession.
In medieval and Tudor England, dovecotes, along with rabbit warrens and fishponds, formed a trinity to create “the living larder”. Every house of a certain size maintained at least one of these food sources, perfect for catering to unexpected guests. Doves could be culled through the year and so provide meat when other livestock could not be overwintered. At the peak of their popularity in the 1650s, there were an estimated 26,000 dovecotes ranging in size and style across the country.
The decline in their popularity is predominantly linked to the introduction of root vegetables in agriculture, as it provided a cheap storable food supply to overwinter livestock. “It will be neither jest nor paradox to say that dovecotes were in a great measure doomed when first the turnip and the swede were introduced to British agriculture, early in the 18th century”, wrote Arthur O Cooke in 1920 in A Book of Dovecotes.
The other factor in the decline was the changing of feudal laws around dovecote ownership. Prior to the 17th century, only barons, abbots and lords of the manor could build dovecotes, later extended to the parish priest. There was increasing resentment among local populations at this, to say nothing of the demands that large pigeon populations put on local farmers. This displeasure resulted in the loosening of the ownership laws. As owning a dovecote became more accessible, it also became less desirable to the gentry, and the practice declined.
The range of styles and sizes is as various and site-specific as for any architectural feature of the British Isles. Brick and flint constructions were popular in counties such as Hampshire and Sussex, while black and white timber-framed dovecotes were distinctive to Herefordshire and Worcestershire.
Two fine examples of this Tudor construction — Hawford Grange and Wichenford Court — remain under the care of the National Trust and are open to the public. Elsewhere, especially across the Cotswolds, local stone was used, in some cases with dressed elements to create finer facades.
One of the earliest examples remaining in the UK was built in the 14th century, by the Knights Hospitaller at Garway in Herefordshire. It is a large round structure with walls 1.2 metres thick.
Although there are huge benefits to preserving these buildings in their original formation, those that have been converted can provide charming accommodation. Emma Burns, joint managing director of Sibyl Colefax & John Fowler, lives in a set of historic farm buildings in Oxfordshire including a dovecote, converted by her parents in the 1970s. Since Burns took over the property she’s made a few changes, working with the limited light due to small or non-existent windows.
“It was important to me to keep the rooms feeling unpretentious as although the building is very beautiful (it is mentioned in the Pevsner architectural guides), it’s predominantly agricultural. I wanted to be honest about that,” she says.
Burns has kept the dove holes visible in the staircase, now amusingly filled with decoy pigeons, and introduced birdlike topiary in the garden.
The dove holes would have housed the nesting birds and could be laid out in a range of patterns depending on the size and shape of the dovecote. Birds would enter at the top or through small holes at the side of the building. Other openings were kept minimal to protect the birds from predators.
Dove holes are still visible within the metre-thick walls of our house. During the 1960s conversion a small section of internal wall was left exposed by the stairs. I now use them to store seed packets as they stay cool and dark all year round — although I’d prefer to have some fantailed friends staying in them.
As dovecotes became less practical, those remaining in the landscape were repurposed to perform an increasingly aesthetic function. This coincided with the rise of the English landscape movement in the 18th century, with its emphasis on vistas and “eye catchers”. This is where I first came across dovecotes, through my work as a landscape designer and historic garden enthusiast.
In some instances, existing dovecotes were worked into new designs or, more usually, new dovecotes were built as follies within a landscape. More ornate structures — octagonal or hexagonal rather than square or round — were favoured here, with elaborate cupolas and detailing.
The octagonal dovecote at Frampton Court in Gloucestershire still houses doves and was built for feeding the table, but also acts as a folly in the Grade II*-listed park and garden. The owners believe it to be contemporaneous with the mid 18th-century court. At Widcombe Manor Farm, near Bath, an unusual and ornate three-storey dovecote has garden rooms (complete with fireplaces) for use by the owners and their guests on the lower two floors, while birds are housed above.
The “meanly built manor” to which our dovecote belonged sadly disappeared centuries ago, so the building missed out on the English landscape movement’s “follification”. It has a sturdier, more ancient attitude. We like to imagine the ghosts of doves past flying through our house, commingling with the healthy bat population living in our roof.
Records say there has been a dovecote on the same spot since 1274. This is an extremely comforting thought. What delights and surprises is that dovecotes, as well as being numerous, are as much expressions of landscape and architectural history as any parish church or castellated castle.