East Devon Branch report: Sep 2018 to Jan 2019

Dame Suzi Leather 2017

In September, and as a prelude to our winter series of talks, many branch members enjoyed our annual ‘Meet the President’ lunch at the Belmont Hotel in Sidmouth. Once again, the occasion provided an opportunity to speak informally to the current DA President Dame Suzi Leather during the drinks reception in the delightful surroundings of the Belmont. Dame Suzi spoke challengingly about the social landscape of Devon and, particularly with an ageing population, the invaluable role which volunteers play in society. The contribution of organisations such as the Devonshire Association was warmly praised. Members were then able to enjoy a delicious lunch served with the style and high level of service for which the Belmont is renowned.

For the first of our winter series of talks, Hugh Meller chose as his subject ‘The Country Houses of Devon’. As the author of a very well regarded book of the same title, Hugh spoke authoritatively and comprehensively about many of the surviving properties and also some of those that sadly have been lost on account of punitive levels of inheritance tax, family circumstances and changes in society following the First World War. Members were pleased not only to be able to recognise many familiar properties but also glimpse others in remoter parts of the county that are not normally accessible to the public.

In November, to mark the hundredth anniversary of the Armistice which ended the First World War, Simon Dell spoke about the conscientious objectors detained at Dartmoor prison during the period of hostilities. He spoke movingly about the strength of character and conviction shown by many principled men in the face of official and public hostility and the inconsistent way in which applications for exemption from military service were adjudicated upon. Many members felt a profound sense of sadness and shame about the way in which ‘the conchies’, as the speaker referred to them, were treated both during and after the end of the war.

For our final meeting of 2018 the branch once again was delighted to welcome Derek Gore, the noted archaeologist and historian, to bring us up to date on the remarkable finds from the continuing excavations at Ipplepen. Derek began by explaining how the excavations of a Romano-British slate mine led to a Geophysical Survey in 2010 to find the homes of the quarrymen. What they found was a strange and unusual site with evidence of a thousand years of human habitation, from the Iron Age to the 8th century AD. His well illustrated talk explained the important structures and artefacts which archaeologists and metal detectorists have unearthed to date. These include a 400 BC roundhouse and cremation burial, one hundred and fifty coins dating from 78 BC to 350 AD, a Roman road begun in 43-70 AD, fine Roman jewellery and Samian pottery from France, together with a lot of daub! Not what they expected from a Devon rural site. Derek concluded by observing that much of the twenty three acre site needs to be investigated and many questions will remain unanswered until other similar sites are found in Devon and Cornwall.

View of part of the observatory site in 1920.
You can read an article published in our Transactions in that year here.

‘Norman Lockyer and his Observatory’, the subject of our first lecture of the New Year, was clearly a subject which resonated with members and visitors from across the county which resulted in the branch attracting an audience of over one hundred and fifty. David Strange who is the Chairman of the Norman Lockyer Observatory Society, gave us a very well received talk about Lockyer, who was a Victorian amateur astronomer who discovered the element helium in the sun’s corona in 1868 and co-founded the magazine Nature in the following year. He became director of the Solar Physics Observatory in South Kensington and a professor of astronomical physics. His building of the observatory on Salcombe Hill in Sidmouth followed his retirement to the town in 1912. David explained the work and discoveries undertaken by Lockyer in a highly understandable way and detailed the present role of the observatory which not only houses historic telescopes but continues to be a centre for amateur astronomy, radio astronomy, meteorology and science education.

Our lecture programme continues, as usual, until March and in this our 70th anniversary year, members can look forward to a summer evening visit to Otter Brewery, our members’ lunch and our first lecture in association with the Sidmouth Science Festival ‘Climate Change: a defining challenge for the 21st century’ to be given by Dame Julia Slingo FRS. In November, our celebratory meeting with cake and a glass of bubbly has the added delight of a talk by Andrew Cooper, the renowned broadcaster and a former President of the DA on ‘Dartmoor: A celebration of its people, places and wildlife’.

Philip Wilby