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Dovecote Construction

Dovecotes were introduced to Britain during the Norman period, although some think the Romans may have introduced them earlier. However it is believed that doves were not commonly kept in the UK until after the Norman invasion. The earliest known examples of dovecotes occur in the Norman castles of the 12th century, and this is when documentary references of dovecotes begin to appear. For a more detailed look at the history of dovecotes and why pigeons/doves were important take a look at Dovecots.

Dovecotes throughout the UK come in all different shapes and sizes. Most are purpose built free standing buildings, others have been incorporated into other buildings such as castles, farm buildings and houses, whilst others have been converted from existing buildings no longer in use such as windmills. Here we are taking a look specifically at their design and their interior.

Dovecote Design

Medieval dovecotes were usually free standing and were circular and built in stone. The earliest surviving, free standing dovecote in the UK was built in 1326 and is at Garway in Herefordshire, with its 666 nest boxes.

The Oldest Surviving Dovecote at Garway in Herefordshire
Photo by Pauline Eccles

Though dovecotes may appear picturesque to modern eyes, they were however functional buildings, almost always built using local materials and their shape and dimensions extremely diverse. In England materials used for dovecote construction include primitive mud or clay and straw, through wattle and daub, limestone and sandstone, flint, chalk, timber framing, granite and slate to medieval brick and the ashlar stone of the 18th century. This all gives a diverse regional variations from the black and white dovecotes of Herefordshire and Worcestershire to the flint and brick ones of Wiltshire, Oxfordshire and Sussex.

The more flamboyant styles usually date from the 17th-19th centuries and the most unusual are associated with large houses or estates. Those built in the 18th-19th centuries in landscaped gardens were sometimes disguised as castellated towers in the Gothic revival style, or as Grecian temples in classical taste. Like other late Georgian garden features, they could be in any style that took the owner's fancy, such as the Pigeon Tower on the outskirts of Lever Park in Lancashire, that has 3 storeys the top being Lady Levers sewing/music room, the bottom two levels for the doves/pigeons.

As well as free standing structures, they were also sometimes combined with other buildings. There are dovecotes in the upper floors of three storey towers containing summer houses and prospect rooms in the lower stories. They have been found on top of granaries, above piggeries, hen houses, wells, bee holes, game larders, ice-houses, mortuaries, at the end of a house, barn or stables like at Calke Abbey in Derbyshire, or in parish churches, such as at Compton Martin, in Somerset, and even privies.

Dovecote styles range from simple dome shaped stone structures such as the dovecote at Cotehele in Cornwall, to elaborate half timbered buildings as seen at Hawford   in Worcestershire. Later examples, such as the 18th century dovecote at Felbrigg Hall in Norfolk, often conformed to an octagonal shape. The ornamental guise of the buildings reinforced their role as a status symbol.

Felbrigg Hall Dovecote, Norfolk
Photo by Philip Halling

Dovecote styles include:

  • on stone or wooden pillars, cylindrical, hexagonal or square
  • the hexagonal dovecote
  • the square dovecote with flat roof tiles in the 17th century and a slate roof in the 18th century
  • the beehive design typical in Scotland, which is cylindrical but tapered having a wider bottom than top
  • the lean-to structure against the sides of buildings
  • incorporated into barns or other buildings.

A 17th century 4 Gabled Dovecote in Naunton Gloucestershire
later converted to a water mill
Photo by Norman Hyett

Their location was chosen to make them easily distinguishable to the returning flocks. Generally they stood alone in the landscape and were kept away from large trees that could provide hawks that would prey on the pigeons, with a perch, yet close enough to the house to shield from prevailing winds and to allow them to be monitored. Some were sited within the deer park as part of the living larder, and as a reliable supply of water was essential many were sited near fishponds.

Dovecotes had to be protected from human, airborne and animal predators such as rats, martens and weasels. They also had to be sealed in order that the birds could be trapped by their owners.

Usually the roof was a conical type, although in Wales it could be a domed stone roof. A cupola, some times called a lantern or glover usually sits above the top opening on the roof and is usually where the birds enter in most dedicated dovecotes, it allows birds to enter and minimal light to get in, but also kept the rain out. These range in styles from the early cupola's that were made of stone to those that become highly decorative and could be topped with a weathervane or pole and ball decoration. Later versions were generally made of wood and were sometimes glazed or routinely louvered. Below the cupola inside there would be a trap door which could be operated from inside or out and was used when the pigeons needed to be kept inside.

Other features to look out for include shuttered louvered dormers, small flight holes which enabled the doves to enter but not their larger predators, usually under the eaves, in the roof or on the upper part of the building.  Reinforced tight access doors, sometimes quite small, to keep out intruders. Smooth walls with a protruding band of stones or other smooth surface to prohibit the entry of climbing predators.

Continuous ledges were constructed on the outsides of the buildings, as well as gables, to provide numerous areas for perching and a choice of spots to avoid the prevailing winds. The ledges are often angled to provide suitable footing for doves, but to be impossible for predators to perch on. Glazed windows were sometimes inserted in the 18th and 19th centuries, often into the wall nearest the house so the birds' could be watched.

If dovecotes were timber framed, they had to be square, rectangular or polygonal and with a little ingenuity, potences could still be used within some of these, for example the polygonal dovecote at Erddig, Wrexham, Clwyd, which although polygonal from the outside has a circular inside. Many of the timber framed black and white dovecotes are mainly found Herefordshire and Worcestershire and two good 17th century examples of these are Hawford Dovecot and Wichenford Dovecot in Worcestershire.

Wichenford Dovecot

The typical four-gabled dovecot is characteristic of the Cotswold tradition. A plain single storey 4 gabled design is the most common, however there is a large rectangular 6 gabled variation within the grounds of Lower Slaughter Manor in Gloucestershire. These larger structures tend to be double chambered and hold large numbers of birds like the Willington Dovecot in Bedfordshire which has more than 1300 nest boxes.

Lectern Style  Willington Dovecot

In Scotland they had two specific design types, the 'beehive' and the 'lectern' to find out more about this take a look at Scottish Doocots.

Inside the Dovecote

The main feature inside and of importance to it's main function are the nest boxes which are located in the walls from bottom to top. In later dovecotes the rows of nest holes frequently started higher off the floor to reduce the threat from predators that had managed to get inside, like rats.

The best preserved dovecotes retain their nest boxes, which had to be dark, private and dry. Medieval nest boxes were often built into the thick stone walls, but by the 17th and 18th centuries the nest boxes were built onto the wall, packed together in rows around the interior. Some nest boxes were L-shaped to give room for the
sitting bird's tail. They were also large enough to accommodate a sitting bird and two chicks and to allow it to be dark enough and private.

Nest boxes were usually created of the matching material of the exterior, so timber dovecotes would have wooden nest boxes and stone dovecotes would be built of stone. Other materials used include brick, chalk or clunch, granite, pantiles, plaster, and occasionally soap stone. Unfortunately many forms of original nest boxes have been replaced in later centuries by brick.

Several methods were used to increase the area of nest boxes, including partition walls, projecting piers and central columns, all full of extra nest boxes.

When a new dovecote was established, a flock of doves were introduced and encouraged to remain not only by the presence of nesting boxes but also, often, by white plastered walls, as doves are attracted by white surfaces.

In mainly circular dovecotes they would also have a structure referred to as the potence. This was an early labour-saving device. This structure consists of a revolving wooden pole, mounted on a plinth, with arms onto which ladders could be attached and suspended a few feet off the ground, to enable the eggs and squabs to be collected. Potences avoided the inconvenience and disturbance of continually having to move a conventional ladder around the wall. Good examples of these can be found in the dovecot at Kinwarton in Warwickshire and at the Minster Lovell Dovecot in Oxfordshire.

The Nest Boxes and potence within
Kinwarton Dovecot, Warwickshire

They are most often found in the round structures, although they can be found in other shapes, where the other shape has had its corners rounded internally to increase the effectiveness of the potence. Some of the surviving potences are still in working order, often only needing the slightest touch to make them swivel. There is one in the dovecote at Dunster in Somerset which is said to be 400 years old and still moves at the touch of a finger. However it is possible that many those that can be found today are not the originals, but have been built to show what they would have done.

Late 16th century circular dovecote at Dunster in Somerset
Photo by Trish Steel

See Also


Scottish Doocots

Dovecots in England 

Dovecots in Wales

Doocots in Scotland


By: Tracey Park Section: Heritage Section Key:
Page Ref: dovecot_construction Topic: Dovecots  Last Updated: 09/2009

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