Axe Valley Branch report: 2016


Our 2015-16 season ended in March with a new committee and the most remarkable talk in recent years. The lecture by Captain Hugh May RN (retired) brought to light a secret of the Second World War in our valley which was unknown even to those of us oldies who as boys actually lived in the area during that period. Retiring after his career as a hydrographic surveyor, who commanded three ships during his Navy years, Captain May moved into Selah, a house and large garden on Bewley Down, Billy Down to locals, near Axminster. He soon became intrigued by a small and overgrown building on his grounds. Opened up it turned out to be a rudimentary ‘bucket and chuck it’ privy. His ingrained underwater instincts told him there might be something underneath. With expert associates he began excavating what turned out to be an astonishingly well preserved ‘hush hush’ 1940 radio station. It must have been very speedily made but after 70 years of Devon rain, the walls inside were still dry. It was probably the only surviving relic in Britain of the highly secret Auxiliary organisation set up for civilian resistance behind the lines of the expected German invasion.

With photographs and diagrams the speaker was able to show a number of ingenious devices to prevent or delay quick enemy discoveries. The circumstances may suggest latter day TV comedy favourites like Dad’s Army and ‘Allo ‘Allo but this bunker was a deadly serious preparation for resistance. Its quickly assembled devices included an aerial hidden in a large nearby tree trunk. a pipe through which written messages could be hidden in split tennis balls to be collected by carefully selected cyclists for placing in outside ‘dead letter drops’, a so-called Countryman’s Diary with Auxiliary instructions hidden between other material, and an efficient ventilation system. As well, it is assumed, as a then state of the art wireless. The civilian Auxiliaries were selected through the 1930’s ‘old boy network’ and comprised ‘trusties’ who were landowners, successful farmers and professional men – bank managers possibly included. Strict secrecy was maintained even among close friends. There were rumours in Whitehall but when a commanding officer in the know was once asked by a fellow high up “What do your chaps do, sit in caves and knit?” the reply was “Yes, that’s just what they do”. As a bit more was learned after the war there were suggestions that the Auxiliaries were a branch of the Home Guard. But, as one who had learned more of the truth put it to Captain May: “A relationship with the Home Guard would be like setting the Brigade of Guards beside the Salvation Army”.

At our January meeting in Colyton’s Peace Memorial Pavilion lifelong enthusiast Chris Knapman, chairman of the Devon Ancient Tree Forum, spoke with some passion of the struggle to preserve trees in ever increasing danger as our growing population demands more building. He attracted a full house of members and guests who provided a more animated than usual question time showing unanimous appreciation of his favourite tree mantra: “l was here before you came. I shall be here when you have gone”. Though his title was Ancient Trees in the Urban Environment he was careful to avoid any strict definition of ‘urban’. Many of his slide illustrations showed long-lived trees safeguarded or threatened in the middle of new building for domestic and industrial use in the suburban sprawl. But he also recognised still rural jewels such as the well kept woods between Shute and Kilmington above our Axe Valley. Another variable definition concerned what is meant by ‘ancient’. There were ‘veteran’ trees which are less than ‘ancient’ but still very important. A lot depends on tree type. Massive broad oaks become ‘ancient’ at 500 plus. Yews, such as those sometimes found in church ground, might be over 800. It is also important, said Mr Knapman, to recognise that trees which fall over, or lose stricken branches, but still live, also deserve preservation. Dead wood attracts new wild life, insects and birds and more, and so adds valuable diversity to the natural world.

In February we heard Dr Richard Oliver of Exeter University on the Tithe Maps of Devon. He was able to display historical maps of Colyton and neighbouring Colyford, much appreciated by another full house at our Peace Memorial Pavilion. Such illustrations showed many more orchards and clear fields in 1843 than can now be seen, all dominated then as now by the big black box representing St Andrew’s Church.The church then benefited from the one tenth of all produce from the tithe tax system organised after being taken over by Henry VIII and his Protestant Reformation. Using his rich collection of slides Dr Oliver concentrated mainly on the tithe maps of East Devon, enough to show a wide variety of styles. In the early days the fields had tithe numbers and very few names beyond the big house of a village. For instance the map of Gittisham and its area, close to Honiton, showed the Combe House, which is now a hotel, in big letters, while the tithe rated village cottages were mere numbers. Redemption of the system was supposed to have begun in 1936 but in fact some tithe business surprisingly continued under the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries until 1996.

Before the annual general meeting in March our long-standing and very much hands-on chairman Dr David Westlake, with his committee, decided we had all served long enough. Knowing that members were content to re-elect the same group year after year, with no volunteers apparently willing to serve, he accordingly wrote to members in advance of the meeting that without a new committee there would be closure. This appeal produced volunteers and the branch was saved. Dr Westlake agreed to remain in the chair until the committee appointed his successor. Meanwhile Jo Connor is the new Secretary and Brian Denham is Programme Secretary. Dr Michael Barr continues as Treasurer and Mary Jones has taken my place as Reporter.

Sean Day-Lewis


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