Axe Valley Branch report: Oct to Dec 2015

The annual mystery of the growing audience has continued into our 2015-16 season of talks at Colyton’s Peace Memorial Pavilion. We started in October with a tear-jerking talk, about a 1941 Dartmoor air crash, which deserved a much bigger audience of members and guests than it got. Regardless of subject matter it seems attendance grew slowly over the months until there was a January full house for Devon county preservation campaigner Chris Knapman on Ancient Trees in the Urban Environment. There were enough experts in the audience to lead into a particularly lively question time.

Exmouth-based lecturer John Lowe, himself a member of RAF aircrew as a young man, told of his meticulous research into a forced landing on 1,750 feet high Hameldown above Widecombe-in-the-Moor on the very cloudy night of March 21, 1941. The crew of four in a squadron of Handley Page Hampden bombers, notorious for their lack of interior space for the airmen, had lost their way flying home to RAF Scampton from an attack on a German submarine base on the Bordeaux coast. An emergency landing in Plymouth was impossible as it was the second night of the Luftwaffe blitz on the city. The pilot survived the crash but never regained consciousness. The crew were among the 55,573 Bomber Command aircrew killed in World War 2.

The special poignancy of the Lowe talk was the result of his detective work in identifying the four men aged 25 and younger, he called ‘The Boys’, and bringing each of them back to life. The pilot David Wilson, a volunteer officer who made nothing of his high born background as a son of Lord Nunburnholme, was clearly a leader admired by his younger crew. The still visible stone, carved with the four sets of initials, was placed where the cockpit lay, on the orders of his grief stricken but formidable mother Lady Marjorie.

Many Colyton talks are richly illustrated. In November Dr Robin Wootton, zoology lecturer at Exeter University for 41 years, went several marks beyond that with slides, beautiful as well as telling, which had his viewers rubbing their eyes in amazement. He showed creatures so small they could only be observed with the aid of 21st century sophisticated microscopes, some of them living in water as single cells.

Under the title of ‘The Hudson Transparencies’ the talk was built round Dr Wootton’s rediscovery of the extraordinary exploratory work, using pioneering 19th century microscopy, by the unsung Exeter don Dr C. T. Hudson (1828–1902), he being an equally inventive colleague of his Devon friend Philip Goss, then the most famous English naturalist since Darwin. With special skill as an illustrator who knew about colour he made his transparencies as a lecture aid examining the smallest previously unseen life. The work was completely forgotten until, by great good chance, Dr Wootton found the pictures gathering dust in a cupboard behind his lecture theatre. There was no obvious university enthusiasm so he personally took on the immense task of making the drawings clear and compiling an invaluable catalogue for posterity.

Our Christmas talk, with wine and mince pies to follow, was delivered by the Sidmouth-based walker with camera Peter Nasmyth. Speaking to the title of his lavishly illustrated book Literature and Landscape in East Devon, about writers who have been inspired by our surroundings, he was able to give his audience some surprises. In particular his detective work extended beyond Jane Austen’s well known association with Lyme Regis, culminating in her novel Persuasion. He also identified Sidmouth as the source of her unfinished novel Sanditon and then went on to discover Pynes House, at Upton Pyne north of Exeter, as the setting for her still widely read and first published book Sense and Sensibility.

His list of famous names who found inspiration in extended visits ranged from Beatrix Potter enjoying landscape around Branscombe, and John Betjeman relishing Sidmouth architecture, to W. M. Thackeray, H. G. Wells and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Among those who belonged here were the Ottery-born renowned poet S. T. Coleridge and the novelist Eden Phillpotts. As a keen preservationist Mr Nasmyth had specially warm words for the novelist John Fowles, who did so much useful work as the curator of Lyme Regis museum as well as writing his locally set and lavishly filmed The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Even Mr Nasmyth admitted to surprise when he visited the Axe Valley village of Musbury, He was searching for the detective story writer Nicholas Blake, author of the locally set 1939 story The Smiler with the Knife. He knocked on the door of what was the writer’s isolated cottage and was surprised to discover that Blake was the pseudonym for the then fashionable poet Cecil Day-Lewis (my father) later to become Poet Laureate.

Sean Day-Lewis

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