History by Bryan Waites: Rutland’s rich endowment

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Pigeon-fancier, Dino Reardon, of Skipton, North Yorkshire, saw a pigeon walking towards him one day.

This may not seem very surprising, but when he bent down to check the ring on the bird’s leg, he realised that it belonged to Boomerang, a pigeon he had given previously to a fancier in southern Spain.

The bird had flown almost 1,500 miles to return to him.

This aptly named bird illustrates the loyalty and homing instincts of pigeons.

This ability has been used throughout history, especially in wartime, when pigeons had an important role carrying messages.

Even Noah chose to send a dove to find out if the Great Flood had subsided.

Nowadays, pigeons have a bad press being regarded as a nuisance both in town and country. Although they have always been a menace to crops, for centuries they were an important part of the economy, together with rabbit warrens and fishponds.

When food was scarce in winter, young pigeons known as ‘squabs’, were a delicacy.

The birds mate for life producing two chicks about six times a year for seven years.

Pigeon eggs were also utilised and the dung collected from dovecotes was highly regarded, ‘one load is worth ten loads of other dung’.

It was especially good for hops and barley, also of value the tanning industry and as a source of saltpetre for gunpowder.

It is no surprise, therefore, to find dovecotes throughout Europe from Norman times, perhaps even earlier.

The cost of building them was negligible and, once established, they were almost self-sustaining.

One of the earliest dovecotes is still intact at Garway in Herefordshire, dated 1326. It was built by the Knights Templar.

However, it was only wealthy people like lords of the manor and abbots who had the right to build a dovecote.

After 1619 legislation opened up this right to many more people and so it is in the 17th and 18th centuries that most dovecotes were built.

Rutland is richly endowed with dovecotes having at least 24 known examples which for a small county (156 sq. miles) is a high proportion.

Suffolk at ten times the area has only 30.

Some Rutland villages have more than one dovecote, indeed Ketton has four.

Most are purpose-built and date from the 17th and 18th centuries, one of the earliest being at the Old Prebendal House, Empingham, with a date stone of 1619, the year in which regulations were relaxed.

The former gatehouse of Brooke Priory was converted to a dovecote in the late 16th century.

Typical features of dovecotes in Rutland are the sturdy stone walls without windows and lacking ornamentation except for coped parapet gables and perching ledges; a stone-tiled roof, usually Collyweston slates, sometimes projecting stone slabs at corners to stop predators climbing up ( a good example at Egleton); a small door low down for entry by the keeper; a point of entry for the birds, usually a cupola or lantern on the roof with slats or louvres in it covering the hole by which the birds entered.

The normal shape was square or oblong and the building stone either local limestone or marlstone used as coursed and squared rubble with ashlar quoins.

Manor Farm Barn and Water’s Edge, Ketton, are built entirely of ashlar.

Local dovecotes, were often very well constructed, no wonder that they have lasted so well for over 300 years in some instances.

This is to be expected in an area with outstanding local stone such as Ketton, Barnack and Clipsham stone.

There are many round dovecotes in England but in Rutland only two remain, at Empingham and Barham Court, Exton.

Also, octagonal dovecotes can be found.

In Rutland in Exton Park where it has a cattle shelter built alongside.

It is likely that this dovecote was also a folly and attraction for the Park.

At Clipsham Hall there is a substantial octagonal dovecote next to the stables with a 19th century pigeon tower.

The location of dovecotes is interesting.

It must avoid trees to give good visibility to the returning birds and so that they would not be unsettled by the noise of the wind in the trees.

Other factors were shelter from the prevailing wind, a south-facing aspect and access to water.

Nearness to buildings was important for security, especially that the door to the dovecote could be seen from the farmhouse.

Of course, this reflects the historic origins when the dovecote would be alongside the Manor House.

However, a few dovecotes were in isolated positions, for example in Exton Park and at Empingham in a field on the edge of the village.

The inside of dovecotes consisted of several hundred ‘pigeon holes’ where the birds nested, sunk into the depth of the wall and specially L-shaped. There were alighting ledges of variable size. An impression of this can be gained from the side of the Tithe Barn, Cottesmore where the pigeon holes remain but the rest of the dovecote has gone.

At Pilton the ruin of a dovecote can be seen which also gives an idea of the inside.

Sometimes, as at Egleton, a vertical wooden shaft was constructed inside as a protection against sparrow-hawks.

In order to collect eggs and squabs, a revolving frame with a ladder attached called a potence was constructed inside the dovecote.

This was usually in round dovecotes but can also be found in other types. Very few of these remain and none so far as we know in Rutland.

Many of Rutland’s dovecotes are in good condition. Some, like Egleton and Belmesthope, have been restored.

Most have different uses to-day: as workshops, as at Manor Farm, Ketton; storage as at Egleton and Pilton; a garage, as at Glaston or conversion to domestic buildings as the Grange, Geeston and at Belmesthorpe.

One outstanding example of conversion to a house is at Bassett’s Manor, North Luffenham, where the dovecote of 1740 has been restored and, with additions, converted into a beautiful residence.

By the middle of the 19th century many dovecotes had been demolished or were derelict.

They were no longer regarded as economic, especially since improved methods of farming provided secure meat supply in the winter.

Also, with the enclosed fields now part of the landscape pigeons became more of a menace eating the growing crops.

In Rutland dovecotes lasted longer than some other counties because of the aristocratic influence and the unchanging character of the area which might be viewed by some as a ‘backwater’. Certainly this has helped to preserve so many intact.

Many dovecotes have been lost since their hey-day and it is only in the last 25 years that English Heritage has recognised the historic importance of dovecotes by introducing the Monuments Protection Programme (1984) requiring a county-wide assessment of dovecote sites in England.

In 1995 they issued a report Dovecotes: Monument Protection Programme which reviews the current situation and emphasises the need for site evaluation and protection including the part to be played by voluntary organisations such as CPRE and local authorities.

In Rutland, a survey (not easily accessible) by John and Pamela McCann, The Dovecotes of Rutland, Transactions of the Ancient Monuments Society vol. 50 (2006) gives a comprehensive review, with illustrations, of the latest position in the county.

A more amusing discussion is by Jeffrey Whitelaw in the Rutland Magazine (Autumn/Christmas 1998) entitled ‘A Handful of Doves’ with a great deal on the life and character of pigeons.

The Shire publication on Dovecotes by Peter and Jean Hansell is very good but mentions only one Rutland example, Exton Park, with nothing else at all on the county.

The day of the dovecote is not quite over as it is becoming a desirable feature in modern gardens.

There are manufacturers of hand made high quality dovecotes in the country, until recently one such actually near to Rutland but now no longer in business.

You can have a very pleasant ramble around Rutland searching for dovecotes.

Most are visible from the road but remember that they are all on private land and you need permission to go closer. The distribution throughout the county is widespread and so you will get to know Rutland as well as its dovecotes.

It is likely that there are unknown dovecotes waiting to be discovered. Best of all there are some really good hostelries nearby in most instances!