The pigeons of Willington Dovecote

Willington Dovecote is one of the largest and best preserved examples of a sixteenth century dovecote in England. But what was this striking building used for and why were pigeons so important?

Step inside the dovecote at Willington at you will be surrounded on all sides by tall walls featuring 1,500 nesting boxes, built to house around 3,000 pigeons. Each pair would produce new squabs (baby pigeons) every few weeks and the noise and smell would have been overpowering.  

In the past, pigeons were kept by the important and wealthy as a luxury food. The dovecote at Willington has been dated to the 1540s and is unusually large for a country manor. This would have been a clear statement of the importance of the lord of the manor and his power over his tenant farmers who were powerless to stop the pigeons feeding on their fields. 

John Gostwick, who paid for the Dovecote to be built, sometimes gave pigeons as presents to his friends. Gostwick once sent a calf and two dozen pigeons to Thomas Cromwell, who later became Henry Vlll’s Treasurer, saying that they were ‘the best novelties I can send you at this time’.

The dovecote would have been painted white, supposedly to attract the pigeons, and the stepped gables made an ideal perch from which to keep a lookout for birds of prey. The pigeons entered the dovecote through the louvres in the roof. They then flew down through specially designed trap doors to the nesting boxes in the dark chambers below where they would have been safe from the birds of prey.

Serving up squabs

The breasts of young squabs can be roasted or grilled but the meat from old birds is tough and needs to be stewed or casseroled. At the end of the summer the lord of the manor would select the best birds for breeding the next year and perhaps give the older birds to his servants to cook for their families. They would taste very good cooked slowly and put into pies.

It is said that squabs could be eaten on Fridays and Saint’s days when eating meat was usually forbidden. This was because they could be cut down the breast bone and skewered flat before being roasted or grilled so that they looked like frogs! 

Although not much used in Britain today, pigeons and their eggs are still eaten all over the world.