Return to the Pigeon Cote's main page A. O. Cooke
Chapter 17 Somerset and Dorset Annotated

Recrossing Devon into Somrerset we find ourselves on fruitful ground. Let us turn first to so well known and popular a place as Dunster, where is a dovecote which, besides being of considerable antiquity, is "beautiful for situation," while a tragic story clings to its old walls.

It stands in the garden of the ancient priory; a massive building, circular, and dating from the thirteenth century. The doorway is particularly worthy of notice. The building's height is about nineteen feet, and the diameter the same; the roof is covered with small slates. There are five hundred and forty nest-holes of varying and rather irregular shape. The potence also is in place.

The story above alluded to may best be quoted from the late Prebendary Hancock's Dunster Church and Priory. After describing the dovecote he goes on to say:

"A terrible tragedy is on record with regard to this dovecote. It is related that, when, one spring, it was full of birds, old and young (it would contain quite two thousand) some one shut up or forgot to open the window which gave the pigeons egress to find food for themselves and their young, and that all the occupants were starved to death."
This dovecote is easy to find, being right in Dunster village, near the church. Across the street from it, is a very nice sign that tells about the history and construction features of the dovecote. It is of stone, with a conical roof that looks newer than the main structure, and a square cupola with a pyramidal roof. The door has a wooden surround, and is a few steps above ground level. The public is allowed to look inside, although a metal gate blocks entrance to the main portion of the dovecote. John, could barely resist climbing this gate so he could see if the potence still worked.

At West Camel, near Bath, in a paddock adjoining the rectory garden, is a circular dovecote with four buttresses. The diameter is fifteen feet, the height considerable. Inside is no sign of the potence which probably once existed, but, though untenanted, more than seven hundred nest-holes still remain, some being L-shaped, others of more simple plan.

The roof  is of rough tiles, the walls but little short of three feet thick, and the door noticeably small. Close by is a good specimen of an old tithe barn, perhaps coeval with the dovecote. West Camel was formerly an appendage of Michelney Abbey, near Langport, and the tradition of this having been the abbot's dovecote is quite probably correct.

An even finer tithe barn, with a stately entrance, buttresses, and narrow cruciform window-slits, is the near neighbour of the dovecote at the Manor House, Pilton. Both house and barn belonged to Glastonbury Abbey. The dovecote, standing in the yard, is a square stone building of no particular beauty, and is now attached to other buildings. The length is eighteen feet, the breadth some two feet less, and height to gable of the tiled roof twenty-five feet. Several hundred nest-holes are still seen within. This dovecote, like the one previously noticed, is buttressed. The suggestion that it is of very early date is confirmed by the good thickness of the walls - three feet four inches. One window faces south, another west. The doorway on the ground level is clearly a modern addition, the original entry having been by a small door placed high in the north wall, and doubtless reached by a ladder.

At Ivythorn Manor, Street, we have an oblong dovecote, measuring thirty and a half feet by twenty-one and a half. There is a gabled roof, the tiles on which have clearly been renewed in modern times. The whole north end has also been rebuilt, a barn-door being inserted, and the former nests removed. The three remaining sides contain nests to the number of over five hundred. The partitions between them are noticeable as being of a very porous limestone, known as "coral rag" and stated to be French. Ivythorn manor-house dates back for over seven centuries, but the dovecote is of less antiquity.

Another oblong dovecote occurs at Witham, near Bath. It formerly stood in the middle of other farm buildings belonging to Witham Priory, for it is mentioned in an inventory of the early part of the sixteenth century. Its old surroundings have now disappeared, a road runs through their site, and by this road the dovecote stands. Moreover, it has suffered drastic alteration as to purpose, being today the Parish Room.

It is a building thirty-one feet long by thirteen feet in breadth, with a height of twenty feet to the high-pitched roof. The roof is newly tiled, but still retains its ancient timber-work. The walls are three feet thick and are supported by four buttresses. The ancient doorway has now disappeared. The still remaining nests are of the orthodox L-shape.

There is an unusual internal feature for which it is difficult to account with any hope of certainty. This is a ledge or "drip" which runs all round the inside surface of the walls, four feet six inches from the floor. The suggestion has been made that it was meant to carry a wheeled staging to and fro across the house - a means of access to the upper nests. This seems hardly likely, such arrangement being unknown elsewhere.

A certain mystery attaches to the next dovecote on our list. This will be found at Stoke Courcy - commonly called Stogursey - near Bridgwater. It stands on sloping ground east of the church, in the yard of Priory Farm. It is of stone and circular, the walls being three feet thick, the internal diameter about fifteen feet, and the height to the eaves eighteen. The cone-shaped roof is thatched.

A modern floor divides the building into two stories, the upper one being reached by outside stone steps. A window in this upper story faces east, that in the lower looking towards the church.

The accounts received of it are somewhat discrepant. First comes a clear little woodcut, printed in a magazine some years ago, in which it is described as the "monks' barn" - an obviously erroneous account of a building at once circular and small. Then follows a correspondent who, while not supporting this theory, suggests that it was always what it is today; namely a store-house, or, as an alternative, a "game kitchen."

But doubt is seemingly dispelled by the present tenant of the farm, who, in a description of the building which is both minute and clear, states that though many of the original nest holes are blocked up, some still remain and others can be traced. They had an entrance six or seven inches square, and enlarged inwards.

This seems conclusive, and the Stogursey dovecote is, in consequence, entitled to admission here.

We found this dovecote, still in the grounds of a farm, and pretty much as Cooke described it. It is obviously divided into two floors, with stone steps leading up to the door in the upper floor. It has a thatched roof. The farmyard where the dovecote stands is a particularly sad-looking place. The best view of it is from the churchyard. September 24, 1998

An interesting dovecote stands in the churchyard of Norton-sub-Hamdon. It was a manorial, not a clerical appurtenance, formerly standing in a field, and only assuming its present position when the churchyard was enlarged some years ago.

It is a picturesque circular building of Ham stone, with a cone-shaped roof in which are two dormer windows. The cupola takes the form of a flat stone slab, supported by four small stone pillars and surmounted by an ornamental knob. The internal diameter of the building is thirteen feet, the height to eaves a little more. The level of the floor is some feet lower than the ground outside. Inside are about four hundred oblong nests.

Five buttresses support the walls, which are three feet thick. The doorway is small - four feet six inches high, by two feet four in breadth. On one jamb is carved the date 1785; but the body of the building is certainly the equal in age of the fifteenth-century church. Trask, in his history of the parish, says: "The dovecote, held by Nicholas Newcombe at 6s. 8d. rent, is still with us, although it was built before the church." The rent, unlike the rent of other dwellings at the present time, is falling, for one shilling annually is now paid to the lord of the manor by the churchwardens.

This dovecote really is right in the churchyard. It is exactly as Cooke described it, and is particularly picturesque in this unusual setting. We were lucky that the man who lives next door is keeper of the key to the dovecote. He noticed that we were interested and came over to tell us about the dovecote and let us look inside. An interesting feature is that on one of the buttresses is a series of holes that were used to play a game. The church also has beautiful carved and painted wooden doors. October 2, 1998.

Not far distant, at Stoke-sub-Hamdon, is a dovecote now roofless. It is a circular stone building, sixteen feet high to the eaves, and fifteen feet in diameter. There is a small square window near the roof, the walls are three feet thick, and the door four feet high. Inside are about five hundred oblong nest-holes, but no trace of a potence. A priory existed here in 1306

This dovecote is in the priory grounds. It is as Cooke described it, being roofless, with a window high up near where the roof would have begun. It is also buttressed. The nest boxes inside are formed by the placement of squared-off stones, and are rather irregular and ancient-looking. It is as if, instead of being built as part of the wall itself, as in so many stone dovecotes, these nest holes were built separately against the inside of the stone wall. Although no pigeons now live in the dovecote, a flock of white pigeons does live in the nearby priory barn. October 2, 1998.

Somerset's dovecotes have detained us long, leaving but little time for those of Dorset, the last English county here to be described. Four only will be noticed; these, though "few," are more than "fit," and eminently worthy of their place.

Most beautiful for situation is the dovecote standing on the lawn at Athelhampton Hall, an ancient manor-house distinguished even in a county which is full of such. The dovecote's background, looking at it from the house, is formed of immemorial elms; while close behind it are green walls of closely clipped yew hedges stretching in along perspective from the velvet turf.

The dovecote is a large round building, in circumference over eighty feet. The walls are buttressed, and against them several ancient pear trees grow - the most innocuous form of living vesture that a building can well have. There is a single dormer window just above the eaves of the tiled roof, upon the top of which is a small wooden cupola having three tiers of entrance-holes, alighting-ledges being provided for each tier. The vane surmounting all is a bird which we may take to be a pigeon.

The walls are three feet thick, the door three feet six inches high, by two feet six in width. Inside there is a potence, in good working order, with its ladder still in place. Of about one thousand nest-holes some are simply oblong, while a few have two entrances.

At Melplash Court, near Beaminster, now a farm, there is a circular stone dovecote said to have been built in 1604. It stands in a field and is of rather small size; forty feet only in diameter, and twelve feet high to the eaves.

The walls are forty inches thick, the doorway four feet high. The nest-holes, about two hundred in number, are simple oblong recesses; no potence remains, but timbers in the roof suggest one having been in use.

Piddletrenthide Manor presents us with a dovecote differing entirely in one respect from any of the specimens already seen. It stands about three hundred yards from the house, on a small hill in a wood, and is built of mixed brick and flints. The height to the eaves is considerable, being forty feet; the diameter is twenty-one. While the greater portion of the building is of circular form, the first six feet from the ground is octagonal.

This, at least, is the case externally; but inside, the whole, from floor to roof, is round. It contains over eight hundred L-shaped nest holes, with alighting-ledges for each tier. The potence and ladder are in complete working order. The walls are three feet thick, the roof tiled, and surmounted by a lead-covered cupola upon which is a weather-vane.

We can recall the story of a feast at which the choicest wine was served the last. Old coachmen, conscious of a tired team before them, were wont so to husband its strength and speed as to "keep a trot for the town." So, on like plan, a certain Dorset dovecote is reserved to be the last recorded in the English section of this book; a dovecote which, did it possess no beauty in itself, would yet claim notice, even affection, on account of its former owner. He, worthy of the county that calls William Barnes its son, spent all too short a portion of his useful life in the old garden where the dovecote stands; spent it among the birds that he loved second only to his fellow-men. It is to Bingham's Melcombe, the last home of Reginald Bosworth Smith, that we are now to turn.
Pity that time and space will not allow description of this wonderful old Dorset manor house, of this enchanting garden where 'tis always afternoon. Much might be said about the house itself, its architecture dating from the reign of Stephen to the days of Anne; about the gate-house with its buttresses, its old walls nine feet thick; about the hall, the Tudor oriel, with the powdering-room and turret stairs. More still about the garden, with its walls, here built of small grey bricks, and there of "cyclopean stone"; its giant hedge of yew, four centuries old; its bowling-green of an "inviolate antiquity"; its silver firs and sycamores and flowing stream. But of all this it is far better not to speak. Some one has been beforehand with us; one who dwelt for seven happy years amid this scene of placid beauty, and, when death beckoned, gave his last look to the old garden that he held so dear. For Bosworth Smith himself has told us surely all there is to tell of house and garden in that fascinating volume, Bird Life and Bird Lore.

So let us come at once to where, "further on again, is a circular dovecote of stone without an angle in the whole, walls, roof, or top . . . such as no well-conditioned manor-house of the Edwards or the Henrys would willingly have been without." A little cavalier, this treatment of the building, we may think, for it is one of no uncommon charm. And yet we cannot doubt its owner loved it, as he loved its inmates, loved the magpies, ravens, owls of which he wrote with such appreciative pen.

To us at least the building seems one not to be passed lightly by. On entering into ownership of Bingham's Melcombe, the new occupier found the dovecote much dilapidated, and forthwith restored it with a care it well deserved, remodeling the whole upon an old design. It is a circular building of brick and stone. The roof, its slope of most alluring grace, is covered with delightful old stone tiles and crowned by a small open cupola, poised on pillars many and slender.
The walls are three feet thick, the doorway not particularly small. Inside are several hundred L-shaped nests. There is a subtle air of both antiquity and grace about the Bingham's Melcombe dovecote, rendering it unfitted to be anywhere than in its own peculiar place.

Beauty at Bingham's Melcombe - thither have we wandered by a long and devious road from Garway's rugged walls; and here our survey of some English dovecotes ends. Turn now to what awaits us north of Tweed.

Dovecote: Table of Contents