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History & CommunityDerek Stevens 09/09

Derek Stevens 09/09

During the war our small village of Rousdon had a searchlight battery to the west, anti aircraft guns and mine fields on the cliffs to the south and a Royal Air Force signals establishment to the east where a caravan site exists today. Tall radio masts and interconnecting wires warned that it was a place not to be talked about. We befriended a Welsh airman from here who would turn up to do the garden and repair broken parts of the chicken runs which had fallen into disrepair since granddad had died.  We had no fresh water supply, except for a ten gallon milk churn dropped of by Ron Carter who made the rounds each day picking up the milk from surrounding farms in the morning and delivering coal on the same lorry in the afternoon, so it  became a habit for us to take a bottle with us wherever we went to bring back fresh water from other people’s taps.

One of our neighbours was Mr Cook, the gamekeeper of Stedcombe estate. He lived down a lane which led along a small valley through a spinney, past a barn  alongside a pool where we children would catch freshwater shrimps. It was here Mr Cook had his rogues gallery. This consisted of a line of wire stretched between two posts from which was suspended dead magpies, crows, weasels, stoats, sparrow hawks and other birds of prey. This was a warning to all other similar creatures who posed a threat to the estate’s supply of game. The attitude of landowners and country sportsman in those days was pretty heartless towards any creature considered a threat to their sport. Game fishing conservation groups paid a bounty of 2s 6p  on  each head of a cormorant presented to them.

Taffy, for that was the name we had given our Welsh airman friend, and I set off one Sunday morning to visit Mr Cook and as we walked through the estate fencing alongside the spinney a disturbed animal suddenly crashed out from within the undergrowth into our path. It was a wonderful young stag. Having leapt over the rails of the fencing on one side it faltered as it was confronted with the rails in the opposite side. I remember running towards it with my bottle. I turned for support from my Welsh friend but he was running in the other direction. I suppose he had never seen such an animal in Cardiff. The stag by this time had gathered its wits and with a bound was over the fence and pranced wonderfully over a field, just like one of those young stags in ‘Bambi’, and disappeared into the tree line. We walked on to  gamekeeper’s cottage and I excitedly told Mr Cook about it all and he told me that if I had knocked it on the head with my bottle and brought it on to the cottage he would have given me sixpence.

I remember that animal vividly, it was much larger than a roe deer and was surely a red deer stag. Could it have come from the deer park of Shute house, the historic home of the Bonvilles and Poles? At the end of the war the house was in use as a school for girls. In her book “The Story of Shute” published in 1955, headmistress, Marion Bridie, writes “During the recent war, labour being short, the landowner sought to give up the keeping of the animals because of the constant need for the mending of the palisades to prevent them from escaping and making for the hills.” So, perhaps the chap I saw that day was an escapee from Shute. On the other hand a huntsman I was talking to recently suggests it could have been from farther away. Single stags from Red deer herds have been known to roam far away from their herds in Exmoor or the Quantocks in search of hinds, one was flushed out in recent times in Gittisham near Honiton.

Despite the apparent pressures being suffered by certain local wildlife it did seem evident that, with most guns being overseas and being aimed  at the enemy,  populations of some species were expanding. I remember the seasonal experience of  seeing wide skeins of wild geese flying along the course of the river Axe, not to be seen so often today. I remember one alarming evening when walking over a stubble field in the light of a full moon the whole field seemed to erupt as I disturbed a mighty flock of wild duck. There were so many of them they blocked out the face and the light of the moon. Momentarily frightening it was a fantastic sight, and they made quite a memorable racket too.

Shute woods run along the crest of the hill which lies opposite the old deer park and runs down the far side to Kilmington village. At the time of the war a grand plantation of Scots Fir grew there and the late Tom Reed, a great countryman, woodsman and well known thatcher told me about his wartime labour in the sawpits of Shute Woods. Early in the morning he would start work with his father, Tom being the underdog in the pit his father being the top dog. They were cutting out 60 foot lengths of Scots Fir timber 18 inches by 18 inches square which were then sent off to  Devonport dockyards. After a break at lunchtime they would work on until father would stop and pull out his fob chain and look at his watch. As Tom brushed off a layer of accumulated sawdust from the afternoon’s work his father would announce “Nearly 6 o’clock, I reckon we can go on for another couple of hours.” and so they would.

There was one occasion, Tom remembered, “When we finished sawing one evening and went on to put in a couple of gateposts in the  moonlight.”

It was one of Tom’s not too distant relations who told me that fierce wartime restrictions had forced them to partake in a bit of petty larceny in order to continue with important wartime business. Whilst a hospitable lady of the village of Dalwood was entertaining American soldiers in her cottage with tea and cakes two young village lads were outside relieving the parked Jeep’s petrol tank of US Government property. “Well, us couldn’t get no petrol, could us!’” he explained.

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