A good example of a 14th century flint faced dovecote can be seen in the unspoilt village of West Dean, East Sussex.
This would have housed maybe as many as 500 birds at its full capacity and would have been a very important source of meat and eggs over the long winter months when food was always scarce. Usually the squabs would be taken from the nest about 3 weeks of age whilst their flesh is tender, an oak ladder which rotates around a central vertical beam called a pottance is used to reach the nesting holes.
The dovecote is normally closed to the public as it now houses a breeding pair of Barn owls who have gained access through a square opening in the oak door and have a nesting box on a platform at the top of the pottance. The dovecote is open to the public twice a year, on my visit coinciding with a Heritage weekend in September 2011.
The upper levels have recently been restored by the enthiusiastic owner Julian Martyr with the help of English Heritage, Wealden District Council and the Mitford Foulerton Trust. I talked to Julian whilst on site and he pointed out the chalk blocks which form the breeding nest holes. This chalk has to come from the middle strata of chalk deposits as the top layers of chalk contain flint and the bottom layers contain shells and fossils. (some of the unused blocks can be seen in the picture )
Julian had studied dovecotes whilst at university and was very surprised at the amount of large stone dovecotes in the Cuckmere valley area in medieval times. with birds foraging freely to find their own food He thinks perhaps the pigeons were sent to London and French markets.
Perhaps with the Cinque port of Seaford only a few miles away it is possible that they were shipped to the capitol and abroad rather than taking a more difficult land route.
However we have no evidence of this and I feel that with such a large local farming community working on the land the pigeons would have been used to supplement the workers' Winter rations, relying on the benevolence of the Lord of the Manor who owned the dovecote.
No ordinary person could erect a pigeon structure without permission from the reigning Monarch or keep or harm any pigeons, the latter being a crime. Julian told me of instances of convicted pigeon thieves being transported to the Colonies.
To visit Julian's website to learn more of the history of West Dean visit www.dovecotegarden.co.uk
Flint faced Dovecote West Dean Near Seaford East Sussex
Pigeon nest sites set out in double rows each hole housing a pair and all the retreats going to the left perhaps to help right handed collectors of the squabs and eggs
Chalk blocks left over from the restoration of top row of pigeon nest sites
looking past the oak pottance to roof area this would have had the original entrance for the pigeons in what was called a lantern
West Dean Church one of the oldest Churches in the Cuckmere valley
showing the use of flint a very abundant local building material
Rare old photo of the dovecote in 1885 taken from a water colour showing the Lantern entrance on the top
Photo courtesy Julian Martyr from his private collection
Entrance to the Dovecote the two heavy lintel stones were added in Tudor times