English oak timber framed dovecote

Gerry Peachy’s carefully researched and hand crafted dovecotes are steeped in the history of this country: and very lovely too

Words: Genevieve Taylor

Pictures: Allan Pollok Morris

On a perfectly still autumn morning, the air damp with moisture and a heavy mist laying stubbornly low to the ground, I wend my way slowly down the muddy drive to Gerry Peachy’s rambling old Somerset farmhouse.

As I turn the corner I am confronted by a glorious sight in the misty mid distance. Nestled at the bottom of the sloping field is a large oak timber framed dovecote, complete with a slate topped roof and lead cupola.

With a scattering of chocolate brown birds perched on top and many more milling around on the ground below, the scene feels almost medieval. A master craftsman, Gerry has been designing and building timber structures for over 30 years and recently he has turned his hand to dovecotes.

Gerry with one of his beloved French Carneau pigeons

Just peachy

Growing up in Wiltshire, as a boy he kept racing pigeons along with an extensive menagerie of other feathered and furred creatures, but it was not until well into his working life that he thought about owning them again. Whilst converting an old dovecote on a large estate into lodgings for humans rather than birds, Gerry was stirred into remembering his own boyhood hobby.

He soon set about researching and exploring the history of these beautiful birds and their homes which ranged from the simple wooden dovecote on a pole that stood in many innkeepers’s yards to the more ornate affairs commissioned for a large house. Peachy Dovecotes was born.

Taking inspiration from the great garden designers throughout history, for whom being asked to design a grand dovecote was considered a badge of honour, the hand made structures Gerry builds are about as far from the simple box-atop-a-pole as you can get.

The lead topped ‘pipe’ of the dovecote

The danger of sparrowhawks

The dovecotes are made entirely by hand using English oak beams pinned together with wooden pegs. Lime and horsehair mortar are packed between the laths and roofs of hand cut slate and lead. The lead and glass ‘pipe’, which forms the entrance and exit to the dovecote, is finished with a hand forged spike and finial.

There are no real design rules for dovecotes, each is built to fit in its surroundings, but they all have these side-slit openings on the pipe to allow easy access for the resident birds whilst keeping out predators. Pigeons, I discover, can fly vertically, like helicopters, but their main predators, sparrowhawks, can only fly horizontally so they are unable to negotiate the slim sideways slits.

Being social creatures the pigeons gather together in clusters once out of their house. This also helps to protect them from hunters – there is much safety in numbers, after all.

French Carneau pigeons on the sunlit gable of the dovecote

Too much pigeon pie

The modern tradition of ornamental dove-keeping was popularised by garden designers such as Gertrude Jekyll, and it is certainly true that there are few sights or sounds more lovely than those of doves but there is a very practical as well as aesthetic reason for the dovecote.

Dovecotes provided a well stocked ‘living larder’. Pigeons breed for many months so a well stocked dovecote provided birds when other other sources of meat were scarce. Originally doves were kept by monasteries and manor houses but by the 18th century there were 26,000 dovecotes recorded in Britain.

Since the Second War when pigeon pie turned up more often than most people wished, eating pigeon has fallen out of fashion in this country, and Gerry had to travel to France to source his own ‘utility birds’.

A French Carneau pigeon on top of numbered nesting boxes

French sense

French Carneau pigeons are favoured for their plump tasty breasts (the hints is their name which comes from the Latin for meat). When you learn that they can breed successfully up to 10 times in a year it is very easy to see the sense in taking a few squabs for the pot to keep the population in check.

Pigeons mate for life, with a pair returning to the same nesting box time and time again – the numbers painted on there are simply to help with record keeping. They are, however, fairly low maintenance creatures, needing little more attention than basic animal husbandry. Fresh water daily and ready access to their diet of seed and corn, plus a clean out of the house two or three times a year are all it takes to keep them happy.

Luxury accommodation inside the dovecote

Alternative accommodation

Think of a pigeon keeper and no doubt the image that springs to mind is of a flat cappped man of a certain age, flanked by a loyal whippet, somewhat obsessively tending a make-do shed full of birds at the bottom of the garden.

But one look inside Gerry’s own dovecote reveals a more aristocratic background. The interior is painted with a gloriously dusty white limewash that many of us might crave on our living room walls. Not only incredibly pleasing to the eye, this traditional treatment has antibacterial qualities that help prevent infections. It is also said to resemble the guano covered cliffs on which the birds ancestors would have once lived.

But for me, a complete pigeon novice, the most beautiful thing here is the sound they make, a constant cooing and burring, the pitch gently rising and falling.

The perfect garden den

A country childhood gave Gerry a love of the agricultural aesthetic and nothing gives him more pleasure than restoring unloved functional things to their former glory. For years he specialised in restoring shepherds huts, which went on to become the garden accessory du jour for many an orchard.

Gerry’s own hut, nestled in a wooded corner of his garden, is now a wonderful rough and tumble den for his children to escape to, complete with a tiny wood burning stove and squishy piles of old sofa cushions.

This hut has something of a pedigree, having been towed to Hampton Court flower show in 2009 to win Southend Council a silver medal as the centrepiece of ‘Pastures Bye’, a garden inspired by the history of coastal grazing along the shoreline and estuaries of south Essex.

Oak and cedar polecote in a Somerset walled garden

Carneau for carnivores

During daylight hours pigeons are constantly strutting, coupling, cooing, preening and posturing; they just never seem to stop. They are a joy to look and it is well worth considering carefully where to site your dovecote.

Not content with beauty alone, Gerry has high hopes that his Carneau birds could become the feathered version of the Gloucester Old Spot pig. It is certainly true that these fast breeding pigeons have the potential to provide a free range source of organic food right on our doorstep.

I have an inkling that Gerry may just be right about a potential new food craze on the horizon.

English oak base with zinc pigeon house and Somerset thatch roof

A dovecote for the garden

As a food writer with an ever growing passion for both edible and ornamental gardening, I drive home pondering how I can poach some of Gerry Peachy’s ideas, both aesthetic and practical, for my own Bristol garden.

I already have a few chickens, but how splendid would it be to have half a dozen of these fascinating stocky birds living out their lives in my urban space, teaching my kids a little about life, love and death? In an age when food provenance is quite rightly rising up most people’s agenda, taking a few into my kitchen from time to time seems like a pretty neat solution to living a slightly more sustainable life. To be both useful and beautiful is surely a goal for all our gardens?