The early-16thC dovecote or pigeon house at Athelhampton House sits in a solitary position close to the main house. It was meant to be seen and admired in form and function. Its practical function was to provide the best conditions for the pigeon parents to raise the prized squabs for the lord’s table.
Athelhampton House (or Hall) was begun in the late 15th C by Sir William Martyn and developed further by his heirs in the 16th C.
The architecture of the pigeon house is intriguing with 4 buttresses supporting the circular form. The conical roof provides height and safety for the birds to fly in and out. The octagonal lantern on the apex has landing stages. There is a small, low east door which allows more space for nesting holes and keeps it relatively dark for the cave conditions preferred by the pigeons. I had to stoop through the door to enter and once inside I didn’t want to hang around as it was occupied with many white doves!
The roof and octagonal cedar lantern were replaced in the 20thC. There are 600 pigeon-holes. This would mean a significant number of pigeons could be housed. 2 sets of parents with 2 squabs equals 2400. Only the 1200 parents would be flying.
Pigeons like high places so they can keep an eye out for birds of prey. They are naturally gregarious as numbers in a flock increase the likelihood of a bird of prey being spotted. Narrow or sloping surfaces are not a problem for the pigeons to find a perch.
A pigeon keeper could access the nesting holes with a type of revolving structure that had a ladder on a bracket. There may have been such a contraption at Athelhampton but all evidence has gone. The ladder became known as a portence in the late 19thC. Prior to that it was known in English just as a revolving ladder. This contraption allowed the pigeon-keeper to move around the upper parts of the pigeon house without having to come down each time he wanted to move his ladder. I imagine this would work slightly better in a circular pigeon house than an angular one. However, there are many of the latter form so it cannot have been too much of an issue.
Athelhampton has a lantern rather than a louver, as many pigeon houses were originally built with. There are landing-stages for 40 pigeons. The roof of the lantern is 18thC lead which bears many names and dates, including Thomas Hardy. The conical roof of the dovecote was replaced in the 20thC.
Pigeon houses were buildings of status with the function of accommodating both the needs of the pigeon parents and the valuable squabs. This structure and its managed stock allowed the lord, family and visitors to eat well. The design was made to show wealth, good husbandry and to create as many nesting holes as possible. The environment had to be safe and convenient for the pigeons, emulating a cave and cliff-face. There was an art to pigeon house design and management. Pigeons, like bees, were the animals that had the freedom to fly away to forage. The last thing you wanted was your flock flying off to join a neighbouring lord’s pigeon house because your conditions weren’t good enough!
If you want to read more on pigeon houses please read the blog post Statement Dovecotes Part 1.
Athelhampton House, Athehampton House & Gardens, (2010), p. 44
‘Athelhampton’, in An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in Dorset, Volume 3, Central (London, 1970), pp. 8-13. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/rchme/dorset/vol3/pp8-13 [accessed 15 August 2019]
‘Dovecote 15 Metres North West of Athelhampton Hall’, Historic England List Entry 1119127 1024558, (1956),<https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1119127> [accessed 15 August 2019]
McCann, John, ‘The Conservation of Historic Dovecotes’, Journal of Architectural Conservation,Volume 1, No. 2, July 1995, pp. 78-95
McCann, John and Pamela McCann, The Dovecotes of Historical Somerset, (Somerset: Somerset Vernacular Buildings Research Group, 2003)