All cooped up and somewhere to go

Published in the Daily Telegraph, 12Feb2005

British house-hunters in France have a new flight of fancy. James Trollope on the growing appeal of pigeon towers.

In Britain, few buildings are more basic and functional than a pigeon coop, often tacked on to allotments or placed in the backyard of terraced houses.

The idea of using somewhere that houses Jack Duckworth's birds in Coronation Street for anything more ambitious would be risible. In France, on the other hand, they see things very differently.

Pigeon towers can be the most elegant of farm buildings, often more appealing than the houses to which they belong. In the south-west of France, a few are still in traditional use, but mostly the birds have been sent flying by buyers - increasingly, British buyers, too - who want the space for themselves.

Some have been converted into gites, others function as garden stores or swimming-pool changing rooms, and many have become integrated within the main body of a house. Plenty, though, remain more or less derelict, awaiting the imaginative touch of a creative, and probably wealthy, owner.

The eight departments that make up the Midi-Pyrénées are among the most prosperous in France and the highest concentration of pigeon towers, or pigeonniers - 1,700 at the last count - can be found in the Tarn. With its rolling meadows, oak forests and large country houses, the Tarn - or "Kensing-tarn", as it's sometimes called - is popular with the well-heeled English house-hunter.

However, it's not all Volvo estates and ladies that lunch who can be found in this corner of France. The property dealer who specialises in pigeonniers, Charles Smallwood, used to combine playing rugby for Moseley with managing a large chain of estate agents in the Midlands before he moved, 14 years ago, to one of France's most picturesque towns.

St Antonin-Noble-Val, on the banks of the river Aveyron, is about an hour from rugby-mad Toulouse. Smallwood's sporting background helped him integrate locally and establish his business, Agence l'Union, which he runs with his wife and 10 other multi-lingual staff. Their office is in the heart of the old town, which featured heavily in Charlotte Gray, the film starring Cate Blanchett. "When I think back to managing all those branches in the Midlands and compare it with our single office in this lovely, 13th century, riverside town, I know which I prefer, without a shadow of a doubt," he says.

Smallwood reckons on selling about 60 properties a year. Most are not cheap. A four-bedroom house in good condition, with a pigeonnier, is unlikely to cost less than £250,000 but it will probably have an acre or so of land.

Brian and Vivienne Franklin's country home, not far from Toulouse, is a typical example. The pigeonnier, which is an integral part of the house, has been converted into a 45ft dining-room complete with minstrels' gallery. "It's fantastic. Quite unlike anything we could have bought in the UK and brilliant for parties," says Franklin, who recently celebrated his 60th birthday there. "The only downside is cleaning and changing light bulbs. You need a good head for heights and a very long pair of ladders."

The property, which has one and a half acres and a pool, is for sale with Agence l'Union for £300,000 (€425,000). The Franklins intend to build something smaller nearby. A replica pigeonnier is central to their plans.

Two hundred years ago, pigeonniers were common features in a well-managed estate, providing both fast food and fertiliser. Pigeon droppings proved excellent for vegetables and vines, and it was handy to have the birds within easy throttling distance of the kitchen table. Sometimes the towers also housed pigs, rabbits and chickens, with the pigeons nesting on top and the others living below. Not only were they a living larder, the pigeonniers became status symbols as landowners keen to ascend the social pecking order produced ever more extravagant designs.

Parisians Jean-Pierre and Claude Grand own a particularly fine example near the village of Septfonds, which, along with their house, 25 acres of land and a huge barn, is on the market for £360,000 (€512,000). Mysteriously, the three-storey pigeonnier was built in 1737, about 25 years before the house. The Grands have already spent more than £10,000 repairing its walls and roof. "Originally the pigeons occupied the top floor, the pigs would have been at ground level and a farmhand would have slept in between," they say.

The Grands reckon it could convert easily into a guesthouse or gite. "There's a septic tank, water and electricity so, whatever happens, guests would be a bit more comfortable than the farmhands."

Smallwood says pigeonnier buyers tend to be foreign. "To be honest, 75 per cent of my trade is with the British. After that, it's the Dutch who are the largest group. The `six Ds' of divorce, debt, disease, decay, death and decade [a move every 10 years] means there will always be a steady turnover."

Prices have trebled since he set up in business in 1990, and he admits that finding a bargain is no longer easy. A derelict farmyard in an isolated hamlet in the Aveyron was one of his cheapest possibilities. On a cold, drizzly day, Christine Hargreaves, from Agence l'Union, took me up into the hills to inspect this "wonderful restoration project" which is on the market for just over £100,000 (€149,000).

The cluster of empty houses surrounding the farmyard suggested that the villagers had fled en masse about 50 years ago. Judging by some frayed net curtains and a single crutch leaning on a rickety door, only a few stragglers remained. Just as we stepped out into this eerie setting, two ferocious, black hounds appeared from nowhere. Christine, a former air hostess, tried to calm the enormous pair as I bolted for the farmyard gate. Under the circumstances, we both decided that we'd probably prefer to live elsewhere.

Yet, even in the rain, the place had a certain, bleak charm. A small white pigeonnier, a large stone barn and a few other ruins surrounded the grassy farmyard, across which were scattered various bits of decaying machinery. Beautiful in its way, but not for the faint-hearted.

Hank van der Hove's house was much more welcoming and, at £515,000 (€730,000), five times the price. His pigeonnier, attached to the side of the property, was actually inhabited by a couple of dozen pigeons before he bought it five years ago. "I didn't like them. They are dirty, noisy and breed like anything, so I closed the holes up." Since then, some new housemates have moved in: two pairs of barn owls whose company van der Hove finds a lot more congenial.

The pigeon is much less prized, even by the French nowadays. Farmers began to realise that they destroyed more crops than they fertilised, and their droppings became associated with water contamination and lung disease.

As awareness of public health increased, fewer pigeonniers were built. Many of the best remaining examples date from the 18th century. In some cases, conservation grants are available to help with exterior restoration.

So, while pigeonniers continue to add status and value to a house, their original inhabitants are now considered by many to be a pest.

But in this part of France, at least, the pigeon hasn't been abandoned entirely - especially when braised with lardons in a red wine sauce.

Charles Smallwood, Agence l'Union (www.agencelunion.com; 0033 0 56330 6024).
UK associate: Roger Coupe (01483 268555).