J is for … Jack Duckworth

Fancy a Pigeon

“The record price for a pigeon changing hands is £275,000 – can you believe that?”

I am sat in the kitchen of Terry and Jane Williams, a friendly middle-aged couple and the owners of Somerset One Loft Race; a 1000 berth pigeon training loft. Pigeon owners (‘fanciers’) send their birds to Terry at just 28 days old when he becomes responsible for their care and training for a one-off fee of £100 per bird.

“They arrive in a little box, and we learn ‘em how to walk, how to feed, and how to fly”, Terry explains in his charming West Country accent.

“When they’re 40 days old, we start training ‘em to go in the baskets and fly into the traps. It’s all done with food. We take ‘em down the garden and let ‘em fly back into the lofts, then we take ’em 5 miles, 10 miles, 20 miles and so on, building ‘em up like”.

Tomorrow is a big test for the pigeons who will be released (‘liberated’) from Kent to race the 122 miles back home. This is all building up to the final race of the season in August, from Ypres, Belgium (300 miles as the pigeon flies!) This year it is a flight of remembrance to mark the centenary anniversary of The Great War.

“Everyone comes up ‘ere on the big race day”, Terry explains excitedly. “We ’ave 500 pigeon people – rich, poor, women, kids, millionaires, people on the dole, people in caravans. There is a whole mixture of life becoming one community, ‘aving a laugh and a joke together, until the first pigeon appears in the sky from Belgium. Last year it was all loud and jovial, then someone shouted ‘pigeon’ and it was coming over the trees, a little dot about a thousand feet up. Then it all went silent”.

“You could hear a pin drop”, Jane interjects affectionately, enjoying Terry’s rendition of the story.

“Then the pigeon circled and dropped down and the crowd erupted. They didn’t care whose pigeon it was, they threw their caps in the air and – ‘rrraaayyy’ – they all cheered ‘coz that little pigeon had the bravery to come all that way by itself. Twenty minutes in front of the others it was. We had Scottish people down – ‘ard as nails they were – and they were so moved by the heart stuff of that little pigeon, they had a tear in their eye. It was incredible!” he beams at the memory.

Pigeon racing is typically, though not always, a blue-collar workingman’s sport, (the queen has a royal loft!). The ‘cloth cap and whippet’ pigeon fancier – picture Jack Duckworth – is still there, but is gradually dying out. There used to be 300,000 fanciers in the UK; now it’s dwindled down to about 30,000 and the sport in this form continues to decline.

I ask Terry about a day in the life of a pigeon while he gives me a tour of his lofts. The place has a relaxed and organised feel. The grounds are immaculately manicured, sitting just over the hill from the Glastonbury Festival in the otherwise sleepy village of Pilton.

“We clean ‘em out at 5:30 in the morning. Then we let the pigeons out to fly around, stretch their wings and ‘ave a bath” he tells me.

These pigeons aren’t different breeds to the ones on the street, but they are ‘the Olympic athletes’ of the pigeon world; bred for speed, fed a very specific diet and trained hard

“They know it’s race day tomorrow”, he continues, “‘coz the routine changes a bit. Some of ‘em are quiet, and some of ‘em are big mouths, ya know” – he puts on a crooning pigeon voice – “I’m gonna win this, I’m gonna win that!”

I giggle.

“Then I’ll drive ‘em up tonight, park up and give ‘em a long rest. I open the curtains on the van at about 5 o’clock to let the light in – they’re all asleep” – he makes a snoring noise – “snoring away in bed, ya know? Then suddenly the door opens and they’ll all wake up and start cooing. By about half six the noise gets really loud. Banging on the doors, jumping up and down” – he puts his pigeon voice back on – “ ‘Let me out. Grrr. Let me out!’ ”

The following morning I get up ridiculously early and meet Terry at 6am for the liberation in Kent. Low hanging cloud delays the release (cloud can panic the pigeons), so we sit in the van, drink coffee from a thermos flask and put the world to rights for three hours while we wait for it to clear.

By 9:30 the sky is bright blue and I stand back to video the release. Terry pulls down the lever and the pigeons fly from their baskets, meeting as a group in the air and circling a couple of times to get their bearings. Within 5 seconds they turn into dots and disappear over the trees …