Bideford Branch report: Oct 2016 to Jan 2017

The Bideford Branch Autumn season commenced in October with a well-illustrated presentation on the ‘Buildings of Cornwall’ by Reverend Peter Beacham. He described his extensive work on revising the Cornwall volume of Nikolaus Pevsner’s ‘Buildings of England’ the first of a pioneering series, originally published by Penguin back in 1951 then priced at 6 shillings (just under £10 today). As Pevsner didn’t drive, he dedicated the original 250 page book to his wife, Lola, who took the wheel. Beacham’s recent work has revitalised and re-presented Pevsner’s work and includes much new research. He added more recent notable buildings in Cornwall that were not previously included such the Camelot Castle Hotel in Tintagel built in 1899 by architect Silvanus Trevail and other gems such as those from the 1930’s like Carlyon Bay hotel, the 1935 Jubilee Pool at Penzance, and Saltash Library of 1935, and post-war buildings by Cornwall County Council under the direction of F K Hicklin. His presentation concentrated on these and others that can be considered of architectural merit.

November’s talk took us back to the Second World War and the American amphibious training activities on the coast from Bull Point in the north to Fremington in the south and focussing on activities at Saunton Sands. Richard Bass introduced us to the US Assault Training Centre, set up on the west-facing coast of Bideford Bay in September 1943, and selected as this stretch of coast was very similar to the Normandy D-day beaches – code-named as Utah and Omaha – assigned to the US troops. Specifically Woolacombe equated to Omaha beach, and Baggy Point to the Point du Hoc. In contrast to training with pyrotechnics (fireworks) and blanks by the Brits, the raw American conscripts stormed ashore armed with live fire and real explosives. The successes and failures of the North Devon training as preparation for the reality of Normandy were illustrated and the excellent presentation was rounded off with a video-clip of a US ‘propaganda’ film recording, in breathless ‘Pathé News’ style, the ever-successful training offered to the troops storming onshore to ‘invade’ our familiar coastline.

On a damp grey December day, Dr Mary Breeds gave the Branch a colourful presentation on the flora of Braunton Burrows, an ever-changing area around 5.5km by 1.5km which has been present for over 2000 years. This area of outstanding natural beauty is North Devon’s UNESCO biosphere reserve, a SSSI and the largest sand dune system in the United Kingdom. She illustrated the wide diversity of lichen and plant species. Some 400 different flowering plants have been recorded and she suggested that the site is especially impressive in July, when the majority of the turf plants are flowering. Sea-lavender is found close to the shore, with marram grass further back stabilizing the sand. This gives way to other grasses further inland. The ‘slacks’ (valleys between the dunes) are wet and marshy in winter but dry out in summer. They supports distinctive plants including orchids of various species. She described the effects of human intervention on this fragile biosphere including efforts to stabilise the sand in the 1980’s and changes to the water table. The warning of the further effects of sea level and climate changes was not ignored.

January’s meeting was saved from possible cancellation when the speaker, Rob Wilson-North, was indisposed. Our Branch Chair, Margaret Young, who also happens to be a member of the Exmoor Society, boldly stepped into the breach at the last moment with a delightfully nostalgic talk about Exmoor’s special qualities and her experiences over the years when she lived and farmed on Exmoor. Her description showed stark contrast with present-day life and how the changes have not necessarily improved the quality of life.

Rob Wilson-North’s talk on conservation in the Exmoor National Park will be reprogrammed in the future.

– Michael Wright

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