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Walking in Glamorgan, South Wales. Guided walks, routes & local information

Last updated  

10/9/12

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Dovecotes or Columbaria

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This is one of the biggest columbaria in Britain standing in the grounds of VAN CASTLE near CAERPHILLY. Made of Pennant sandstone it contained over 1,000 nesting boxes. On private land but can be seen from an adjacent field 

Mediaeval dovecotes are passed on some of the walks and this section gives further information on why and how they were used along with the locations of several in Glamorgan. Domestic pigeons were for many centuries kept in specially designed buildings to provide meat for the table. The buildings were known as pigeon houses, dovecotes, columbaria and culverhouses, 'culver' being the Anglo-Saxon for pigeon. The welsh for dovecote is colomendy. The birds were originally descended from the Rock Pigeon, Columba Livia. These days in Britain, if you find pigeon meat for sale it is likely to be the Woodpigeon, Columba Palumbus.

The first appearance of dovecotes in Britain is uncertain but the Romans certainly built them in Rome. Subsequently it was only the nobility and monasteries that were permitted to build them but the law was relaxed in the 17th century and by the end of the century there were around 26,000. 

The pigeon provided an important variation to the mediaeval diet, particularly in winter and larger households would have had dovecotes, accompanied by a warren for rabbits and a pond for fish. The birds were not only a source of meat but were also used medicinally and the dung from the dovecote was considered one of the best fertilizers. The feathers and down from the pigeons, along with other fowl, were used for stuffing pillows and mattresses.                                                                                              

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MONKNASH GRANGE'S columbarium passed on the MONKNASH walk. Right, interior photo showing nest hole.

Once pigeons were established in a pigeon house they required minimal upkeep. The birds foraged across the countryside in search of food needing supplementary grain only in the harshest weather. They were also great breeders producing a couple of chicks around six times a year with a typical life span of seven years. The pigeons used for meat were generally culled when around four weeks old when the flesh was tender and fat and before they could fly.

The arrival of the Brown Rat in the early 18th century resulted in considerable predation so construction was modified to include smooth walls and the lowest nest holes a minimum of 5 feet from the ground. It also became more common to have the dovecotes sited on the top floors of buildings.

More dovecotes around Glamorgan

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LLANTWIT MAJOR dovecote

The dovecote at LLANTWIT MAJOR is believed to have been built in the 13th Century by the Monks who lived in the nearby Monastic Grange. You can see a ridge running around the building near the top. This once supported  a timber platform which both acted as a lookout point and enabled the building to be used as a defensive tower. This dovecote is passed on LLANTWIT MAJOR walk 1.

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CADOXTON dovecote

This dovecote is located in CADOXTON, Barry, and is in the private garden of Cadoxton Court. It is dated to the 13th Century. Of stone construction with a corbelled stone dome and pointed doorway.

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EAST ABERTHAW

In the apex of the roof of this house next to the pub in EAST ABERTHAW can clearly be seen the half-dozen pigeon holes that would have accommodated a small number of birds.

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CULVER HOLE

Certainly one of the most unusual dovecotes in Britain is the CULVER HOLE, near PORT EYNON on Gower. Facing the sea and set into the cliffs there is a reference to it as a columbarium as early as 1399 and it was possibly associated with Port Eynon Castle of which there is now no trace. The masonry is some 60 feet high. It was reputed to have been used by John Lucas of Salthouse in the 16th century as a stronghold and armoury and is believed to have been linked with smuggling.

 

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Left, part of EAST ORCHARD Castle. Centre, East Orchard dovecote. Right, interior showing nest holes.

EAST ORCHARD Castle is an atmospheric ruin to the east of ST ATHAN and can be approached from a public right of way from the village. It is believed to have been a fortified manor rather than a castle and is associated with the Berkerolles family who arrived with the Normans and received the land in the late 11th century. Amongst the various buildings is a large square, roofless dovecote. The photo above right shows the interior with the nest holes in remarkably good condition.

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OXWICH CASTLE

The remains of this dovecote can be found just outside OXWICH Castle on Gower (SS 49766/86315). The castle is the only surviving example in Glamorgan of an Elizabethan prodigy house and is typical of early Tudor court architecture. Whilst ruined, the dovecote provides a good perspective on both the interior with its nest holes and exterior with its access holes.

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Dovecote at the ST FAGANS Natural History museum, near Cardiff

There are reports of a dovecote in the grounds of ST FAGANS castle in the 16th century when the manor house was built although it is unclear whether the dovecote seen here is the original or a later addition. Entry to the building for the doves seen posing here was through the holes in the side rather than the top. The small structure on the roof allowed some light to enter the interior.

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Dovecote near Cosmeston

Near the mediaeval village at Cosmeston are the remains of a mediaeval dovecote shown in this photo with only the bottom metre still standing. Dating is uncertain but it is probably no later than 14th century and possibly 12th century.

The North Gatehouse at EWENNY PRIORY, near Bridgend, has a pigeon-nesting area fitted into the gable.

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Dovecote in Llanvair Discoed

The remains of dovecotes can often be seen associated with buildings that are or were lived in. This one is in the village of Llanvair Discoed just over the border in what was Gwent.  

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Small modern dovecote, also in ST FAGANS.

The modern legacy of the mediaeval dovecote is the mini-pigeon house like the one above often seen as an essential fashion accessory to some contemporary gardens although it is questionable whether they ever provide meat for the lord of the manor's table.

If you know of any other old dovecotes in Glamorgan please let me know with a brief description and location, bruce7@btinternet.com  

Dovecotes from elsewhere

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NAUNTON dovecote. Left, exterior and right, interior showing nestholes.

The village of NAUNTON is in the Cotswolds and it boasts this fine example of a 17th century dovecote made of Cotswold stone and containing 1,176 nest holes. Just visible in the interior photo is a wooden beam. To allow the person collecting eggs or young birds to get access to the nest holes, dovecotes often had a potence (from the French meaning 'gallows'). This was usually constructed from a central pole with adjoining ladders which could be revolved. They were more usual in round dovecotes whereas square or rectangular dovecotes often had a scaffold of beams and ladders.

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Left and centre, PENMON dovecote. Right, nearby building with pigeon holes.

From the small hamlet of PENMON on Anglesey comes this well-preserved dovecote which is in the care of CADW. It was built by the Bulkeley family who owned extensive property and land on the island and are particularly associated with the nearby town of Beaumaris. There was a monastery at Penmon, believed to have been founded as early as the 6th century by St Seiriol and the building on the right with its pigeon holes was part of the 13th century priory. St Seiriol's well is nearby and the saint is thought to be buried on Puffin Island, a mile to the east.The priory was acquired by the Bulkeleys after the dissolution of the monasteries. The dovecote was built here around 1600 and holds around 930 nest holes. The birds would have flown in and out via the cupola on top of the roof. Inside the dovecote is an unusual stone column, seen in the left-hand photo, with stone steps spiralling up it. This would have given access to a ladder, in turn allowing the pigeon collector to gather the young birds from the nest holes.