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Historian John Taylor looks back at the use of pigeons through the years and reveals what has happened to the area's many dovecotes

The history of Dovecotes
The former dovecote at Astwood,
now converted into a private dwelling
Left, the impressive former dovecote is now to be seen in a business park in Stewkley and, right,
the dovecote at Little Woolstone, seen in the days before the extensive developement of the area.

Pigeon carrying a video camera
As recently featured in the Citizen, The Pigeon Archive, documenting the role of pigeons during both the World Wars, is being held between July 4 and August 30.

This is being supported by the Milton Keynes Parks Trust and the Bletchley Park Trust, and in fact it was shortly after the end of the First World War that the Bletchley Park and District Homing Society was formed, with Mr E Bland, proprietor of the Park Hotel, appointed as president, and Mr A Moseley as secretary and treasurer.

As for the pigeons, the northern route was adopted for flying, with the race points for the 'old birds' being Melton Mowbray, Newark, Doncaster, Northallerton, Newcastle, and Berwick on Tweed and for the 'young birds', Melton Mowbray, Newark, Don-caster, York and Northallerton.

Yet apart from their recent use for providing recreation, or carrying messages, pigeons since Norman times have been kept as a useful source of food, although only as the preserve of the lord of the manor or the parson.

However, eventual improvements in farming enabled cattle to be kept throughout the winter, and the consequent decline in the need for dovecotes was no doubt greatly welcomed, as they were renowned for being unhygienic.

In fact the Rev Coles, the Bletchley diarist, records in 1760 that, being made of 'mud and plaister and old timber,' a dovecote adjoining the Rectory was so infested with fleas that he had it pulled down, to be replaced by one built of brick, as far away from the Rectory as possible!

Nevertheless, now converted to purposes far removed from their original use, there are still several dovecotes to be seen within our region, including a fine example at Astwood.

An octagonal building, with a pyramidal roof, this is now a private dwelling, and was in fact all that remained of Ast-woodbury House. A mansion alleged to once have been 'one of the best old seats in the county.'

For reasons somewhat obscure, the house was pulled down in 1799, but a few years earlier the Olney poet, William Cowper, had noted 'There is a Mr Towers at a place called Astwoodberry, about seven miles off; but he is a fox-hunter merely.'

Fortunately, the dovecote survived a visit by the Luftwaffe in 1940, when bombs severely damaged the village church, a German bomber also menaced Dovecote Farm at Shenley but fortunately the bomb failed to detonate. As for the dovecote of the name, this had long been demolished, having at one time belonged to the Fenny Stratford Guild of St Margaret and St Katherine.

By dint of the same name, at Stewkley, Dovecote Farm, (Dove House), may once have been a building of considerable importance (Queen Elizabeth I is supposed to have stayed there on one occasion) but the dovecote has long since disappeared.

However, more definite is the past importance of nearby Manor Farm, for this is an 18th century conversion of a16th century manor house, which itself was a descendant of a manor house built in the vicinity after the Norman Conquest.

Here, within the confines of a recent business park the previous status is emphasised by the surviving octagonal dovecote, built in 1704 of brick in Flemish bond.

Yet probably even pre-dating this by a few years is the well preserved dovecote at Church Farm, Little Woolstone.

The farmhouse was once the home of William Smith, of agricultural steam ploughing renown, but since the arrival of the New City the surrounding acreage has long been built on.

Also now built over are the agricultural acres that once surrounded the village of Great Linford, although dating from the early 17th century the future of the dovecote of the Old Rectory, having 600 nests, was thankfully more assured when declared a scheduled monument.