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SOME WARTIME RECOLLECTIONS OF THE HARLYN BAY AREA
by Anthony Greenstreet
From 1940 to 1947 I spent a number of school holidays in the Harlyn Bay area, with or without my family. The initial stay which lasted from mid-July to mid-September, (when I was 12) was at the Harlyn Bay Hotel. The hotel must have accommodated about 50 guests in the summer, and was owned and run by a retired naval officer, Lt Commander Bellars and his wife. His mother was in charge of catering and her telephone calls to suppliers were overheard with interest by the guests. I recollect one to a Padstow fishmonger, ‘I want some cheap fish for fishcakes: monk would do’. The only recalled evidence of the war within the hotel grounds was that the dining room windows were sandbagged to their tops. At one end of the grounds stood a museum hut containing finds from the celebrated Iron Age period cemetery and settlement that had been discovered there in 1900. Beside the hut, under glass frames, lay some excavated graves, with their occupants, (about half a dozen of them). These relics, mostly long since removed to the Royal Institution of Cornwall, were in the charge of an elderly Miss Chesterton, an honorary resident member of the hotel staff, who confided that her contribution to the war effort was to use the nearby bushes instead of the hotel’s lavatories.
Across the road from the hotel’s entrance, on the west side of the road bridge over the stream, a concrete pillbox had already been erected: I recall a young officer perched on top of it, while trainee soldiers made a mock assault upon it. Not far from the bridge my father (a naval surgeon on leave) was summoned by a policeman to examine a long-drowned body that had been washed up overnight. It was wearing nothing but two socks on one leg, from which my father concluded that the man had been a seaman. My father advised us that when we visited the beach, we should dig a slit trench close under the cliffs in case of machine-gunning from the air; but we treated this as a joke. I recall only one air alert when, walking to surf at Treyarnon Bay, a very varied collection of planes rose from the new, still-building, naval air station beyond St Merryn to avoid being strafed on the ground. (By 1944 my father had been appointed Principal Medical Officer at the now-large air station named HMS Vulture: he was always keen to criticise locals who commonly referred to it merely as ‘The Camp’.)
Within the hotel a stir was created by the arrival of a small Armenian-looking, middle-aged man. He described himself as Colonel de la Fontaine of the Swiss Guards, and was immediately suspected of being a spy. He was indeed removed after a few days from the hotel by police and not seen again – though not before he had tried unsuccessfully to molest my mother. Some of the guests sought to aid the war effort by helping with the harvesting. This took the form of ‘stooking’ the cut sheaves – initially at St Cadoc Farm and then at Polmark Farm. We gained the impression that our efforts were not appreciated by the farm labourers – not so much due to our lack of skill, but rather because we were entrenching on work which they would have been paid to do. Towards the end of the summer holidays we began to get first-hand news of the daylight raids on London from letters written by fathers who had returned to work there, while their families remained at the hotel. In the autumn my grandparents came to the hotel after their Kent house had been damaged by a landmine. While they were there a drifting seamine struck the cliff on the east side of Harlyn Bay at night bringing away a great slab of rock. About Christmas 1940 a Hudson bomber, presumably from RAF St Eval, crashed at night in a small field a short distance to the east of Trevose Golf Clubhouse. We were told that the crew had bailed out in time; but armed soldiers prevented us from finding out more.
I did not return to Harlyn Bay from January 1941 until April 1944. By then HMS Vulture had become a full-blown training establishment for the Royal Naval Air Service. Its principal manifestation at Harlyn Bay was the erection of a control/observation tower on Cataclews Point to monitor the results of rockets fired by dive bombers onto Gulland Island. These noisy practice attacks often lasted all day. The considerable number of male and female naval personnel manning the tower also had to recover wind-sock drogues after they had been shot at by planes’ machine guns. After shooting practice the target-towing plane would release the drogue over Cataclews Point for assessment of the results: occasionally the drogue would fall into the sea, from which there appeared to be no means of rescuing it. (In the summer of 1949 the Padstow lifeboat was called out in a vain attempt to rescue the pilot of a target-towing plane which had been the victim of exceptionally poor shooting practice).
On a flat calm day in the summer of 1949 I sailed in a medium-sized dinghy, with a retired admiral and a doctor, out from Rock to Gulland Island. I was able to leap onto a flat rock, and could see at once that almost every crevice on the island was filled with metal fragments from exploded rockets – and, indeed, that some of them looked unexploded, so that I re-embarked without exploring further. I have never met anyone else who has landed on Gulland. If there are people who since have, it would be interesting to know if signs of its target role in the Second World War still exist, and if seabirds (which were still completely absent in 1949) have returned to colonise it.
Midway between Cataclews Point and Mother Ivey’s Bay stood another tower. largely constructed of corrugated iron, which contained rock-crushing machinery. This processed rock quarried from the cliff below which was hauled up to it in trucks running on rails. This was in constant use, its products being used for building aircraft runways. In April 1944 a water pipe had to be laid between this plant and the naval observation tower, which entailed the destruction of a Bronze Age barrow on the cliff-top. A distinguished archaeologist was called in to excavate the barrow and showed me some fragments of very coarse pottery which was all that was found. He pointed out to me that the field lying between the barrow and the nearby Fishcellars was littered with white flints, mainly microliths, of which I collected a large number. He told me that the associated prehistoric settlement had been around a hollow above the east side of Mother Ivey’s Bay which discharged a trickle of water over the cliff. His information much interested me because my mother had told me that she was never able to pass this spot without being overwhelmed by sensations of gloom and dread. He also drew my attention to a prehistoric midden of rockshells exposed on the cliff where Booby’s Bay separates from Constantine Bay.
Although I saw no obvious preparation for the invasion of Europe, in April 1944 some hint of it was gained by the appearance of a small flat-bottomed infantry landing craft which briefly ran onto Harlyn beach manned by a single occupant before returning, presumably, to Padstow. By this time several hotels in the wider area had been requisitioned to billet members of the WRNS, including The Treglos Hotel, Constantine Bay. It was one of my father’s duties to inspect these, and he found a family of dead barn owls floating in the water tank at The Treglos. His fellow officers maintained that this was the reason why the Wrens there never became pregnant, whereas those billeted at other hotels invariably did. One fellow officer was the Marquess of Milford Haven: when my father played on the Trevose course with him, I had the privilege of carrying his heavy golf bag as well as my father’s. Locals spoke with awe of seeing before the War the grand guests at The Treglos playing golf in their dinner jackets after dinner.
A pleasing architectural feature in the district was that the bricks in the lintels above front doors were painted, usually red. The pair of small cottages in the lane close to handsome Harlyn House had theirs painted blue. The house itself stood empty, and was supposed to be much haunted – particularly by a baby crying by the drawing room fire. Its owners, two elderly ladies, lived in a caravan parked behind the house. They were seldom seen, but would give permission to peer through the windows and to admire the fantastic dovehouse in the kitchen courtyard. It was believed that Harlyn House was sold in about 1947 to a rich South African.
With few other activities available outside the summer season bird-watching occupied much time. The now-rare cirl bunting was then a common sight on telegraph wires. At Harlyn Bay there was a cliff colony of sand-martins, and in the winter of 1940/41 the body of a great northern diver was washed up on the beach. In the hard winter of 1944/45 the edge of the marsh above Harlyn bridge was crammed with hundreds of snipe, while several short-eared owls hunted Trevose golf course by day. In the spring of 1947 a hoopoe visited a garden and cliffs at Harlyn. That spring was marked by extraordinarily vivid sunsets which were attributed to the explosion of atomic bombs. It was also marked by the appearance of numbers of German prisoners-of-war who could be met running in disciplined platoons around the lanes, or mingling with the crowds at the Four Barrows point-to-point meeting. Another remarkable sight was one morning to find perhaps forty French fishing boats sheltering from a storm in Mother Ivey’s Bay.
A 1940’s visitor returning now to the area finds changes that may well make him glad he holidayed there in those distant times rather than today. Some things will astonish him – as, for example, to see people in the sea at Booby’s Bay and Constantine Bay. In those days it was considered far too dangerous to enter the water there – a view vindicated by the drowning one afternoon at Constantine Bay of half-a-dozen of a party of sailors newly posted to HMS Vulture who had been unaware of the danger of swimming there.