Tales from the Vale

Go up Bulbarrow Hill … | Tales from the Vale

Go up Bulbarrow Hill and at the top, just off Cuckoo Lane, apart from a really beautiful view, you’ll see disused buildings, aerials and, across the lane, old Nissan huts.

All looks a bit dull, but this is a site of considerable national importance. It was a Gee Station, used during the war to allow RAF greater accuracy in its night-time bombing raids across Germany and occupied Europe.

Until the invasion of North Africa, Bomber Command was the only way of bringing the fight to the Germans on land, so ‘hitting the Hun’ was of political as well as military importance.

The only problem was it was more a case of ‘Missing the Hun’ as bombing was highly inaccurate in the war’s early stages. Only 10% of bombs dropped came within miles of the target.

GEE is a British radio navigation system, devised by the gloriously named Robert Dippy, and developed at the Telecommunications Research Centre at Swanage, Dorset.  

The Germans also used similar technology. The British were aware of this and, it is believed by some, our boffins ‘bent’ their radio direction beams so that German bombers on one occasion unwittingly bombed neutral Dublin instead of their target in west England.  An act for which the Nazis apologized (we can presume without really meaning it, perhaps the Nazi Ambassador had his fingers crossed when he said, ‘sorry, and all that’), and post-war Germany paid compensation for the atrocity.

Back to Bullbarrow.  It is so-named because it is the site of an Iron Age fort, whose inhabitants buried each other (not at the same time, obviously) in barrows, or burial mounds, and is also referred to in popular music.

Few people will not be keenly aware that the British band, Half Man Half Biscuit, refers to Bulbarrow Hill in their song, ‘Third Track Main Camera Four Minutes’.  Well worth a YouTube.

This terrific song, I need hardly tell you, comes from their 2000 album, Trouble Over Bridgewater, in which, again, as most of you will know, the narrator bemoans the increasing popularity of trendy holiday destinations, such as Cuba and Iceland, saying, ‘I’d much rather go down to Dorset, with its wonderful Bulbarrow Hill’. I’m surprised Dorset Tourism hasn’t cottoned on to these wise words.

Less amusing is the fact that on 13th February 1969, a Gloster Meteor jet fighter crashed on Bulbarrow Hill (Grid ref 805068) killing both pilots, R Woolley and Flight Lieutenant RV Patchett. The cause of the crash has never been established. But two local men, John Tory and Donovan Browning received bravery awards for risking their lives trying to save the pilots.

Some people of a certain age will remember the rather lovable TV pundit and countryman, Jack Hargreaves, who, briar pipe firmly clenched between nicotine-stained gnashers, achieved a degree of fame with his Out Of Town programmes. Jack’s ashes were spread in 1994 on Bulbarrow Hill above his home, Raven Cottage in Belchalwell.

This village’s unusual name, I am more or less reliably informed, doesn’t stem from the residents’ widely-documented love of pickled onions, but refers to a ‘cold well on a hillside’. More romantic, I suppose, but I’m rather keen on the pickled onion thing which, incidentally, I just made-up.  

The two-acre site where the personnel manning the Gee Station lived is reported to have been acquired for £30,000 by a Richard Hayward in 1991, after he rented the site since 1970, where he ran a woodyard making fences and pit props.

Mr Hayward is reported to have said that shortly after buying the land’s freehold, he was offered £500,000 for it. And that, now with planning permission for a residence, it is worth closer to £1m.  

And if you drive past you can see a substantial and very attractive house almost at the end of its building. It may already be finished, but I can hardly claim that checking up on its progress is ‘essential travel,’ as I write this during lock-down.

Before I sign off, I’ll mention that during the war, my father, when a young lad, was, with his mates, regularly bussed from Plymouth to Dartmoor where the young scamps rigged up apparatus on dark nights so that German bombers mistook the moor for the Naval Docks at Devonport.

‘So your aim was to attract the bombs,’ I asked my dad.  He said the lads, volunteers all, found it very exciting. Their protection consisted of helmets made from compressed cardboard, and they dug trenches they’d jump into when the bombs arrived, ‘Oh, well that’s all right, then,’ I said.

Similarly, my mum, a nine year old London girl during the Blitz, even now tells of how exciting she found it in the shelter in their garden while high explosive rained all around. ‘We had cocoa, could read all night,’ she says, wistfully.  Mind you, this is a lady who said she found VE Day, ‘rather dull’.

And I have in my possession an old black and white photo of VE Day celebrations and I can clearly see my mum, then a very pretty 14 year old, looking rather left out.

What steely youth we had then, eh?

Andy Palmer

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