An all year round source of food

Dovecote - Kevin Gordon
Dovecote - Kevin Gordon

It is probable that the Normans introduced doves to England as there are dovecotes built into Norman castles such as the one at Rochester.

Dovecotes were a practical way of keeping birds for food throughout the year and were built all over the UK, indeed by the 17th century there is believed to have been about 26,000 dovecotes in England alone.

Dovecotes were built by the gentry or in the grounds of monasteries (there is one at Michelham Priory) and there were strict rules as to who could own them.

The Cuckmere Valley and surrounding area had many dovecotes and although several are still in place, they are often on the estates of private houses and not accessible to the public. This weekend however you have a rare opportunity to inspect an ancient dovecote at close quarters. I was recently invited by the owner Julian Martyr, for a preview.

The dovecote at West Dean was part of the manor house and probably dates from the 14th century. It is contemporary with the dovecote at nearby Charleston Manor, although the one at West Dean has its original door and is taller. The dovecote to the south-east of Chyngton House in Seaford, like the one at Alciston, is later and is square in design.

The dovecote at West Dean has been beautifully restored under the guidance of English Heritage. Despite being built of rough greensand, chalk blocks and field-flints, its clear curved lines and solid structure show that it was an important building. Inside, the pigeonholes circle the walls. There are four pairs of 41 nesting boxes in bands around the walls. This means there are over 300 boxes which would house a pair of birds which in turn would keep up to 7 young. This means there could be as many as 2,500 birds kept in the building. Julian told me that the dovecote at Lewes was once five times the size of his one!

The birds here would be rock doves (Columba Livia) also known as the (common or garden) pigeon and the unfledged young are known as squabs. Squabs were a delicious treat for our medieval ancestors. They could be kewered and roasted on an open fire and, because their bones were soft, they could be eaten whole, (much like a sardine.) The pigeons’ eggs could also be eaten, making the building basically an all-year round larder. To gain access to every pigeonhole, a centrally based revolving ladder called a potence was used. (A potence is also an alternative name for a gallows.) The potence at West Dean has been reconstructed and Julian showed me how it swung around on a central pivot to access each pigeonhole. The operation was silent to save disturbing the birds.

As well as food there was another by-product of the dovecote – pigeon droppings (guano). The floor of the dovecote at West Dean is made of clay and chalk and would have been covered with two or three feet of pigeon droppings. Guano would have to be cleared regularly but would have been used to fertilise crops as it is an important source of nitrates.

The first mention of a dovecote at West Dean was in 1385 when parish records show that squabs and eggs were due to be paid to the local priest as a tithe. The Lords of the Manor here would have fed well on the contents of the dovecote. Julian has compiled a list of owners of the land here which stretches back to the year 899AD. I was interested to see that one of the occupants was William Thomas (1641-1706) He was an MP for Seaford for 20 years between 1661 to 1681 and attended the ‘Long Parliament’ which had been established when he was just one year old.

By the time William was resident, the better management of land would have meant that more root crops would have been available to sustain livestock throughout the winter. This meant that the pigeon was not so important as a source of food and many dovecotes were abandoned. It is possible however that the dovecote at West Dean was retained for sport. The birds would have been used for target practice for shooting parties arranged by the gentry for their guests. Coincidentally guano is also an important source of nitrates for making gunpowder.

By 1825 the West Dean dovecote had lost its roof and slowly deteriorated. The building was stabilised in the 1960s but in the past two years it has been subject of a major restoration using locally sourced materials. The dovecote now can be seen and it looks both inside and outside, much as it would have done 700 years ago.

The only difference is that it does not house birds any more. I was interested to hear therefore that the dovecote is an RSPB sanctuary and Julian has been trying to encourage owls to nest there.

This beautifully restored dovecote will be open to the public tomorrow and on Sunday from 10am to 4pm. From Seaford turn left when you get to Exceat and take the first turning right for West Dean Village. At the village turn left towards the church where free parking will be available. You will also be able to visit an Advent Market.