Today, Yelverton is the sort of place where not a lot goes on. Situated on flat land, 10 miles north of Plymouth, on the western edge of National Park, it has become a commuter village, popular with retirees. However, Elfordtown, as it was originally called, was once a busy railway junction and, just a few decades ago in its alter ego of RAF Harrowbeer, it was a hive of frenzied activity, where Polish, Czech, American, Canadian, French - and British - pilots played their part in the defence of the free world. Finally decommissioned in 1962, Yelverton Aerodrome now hosts learner drivers, kite flyers and dog walkers - but the fading strands of tarmac, and the remains of brick and concrete buildings, tell another story.
We were the guests of Michael Hayes, part-time historian of RAF Harrowbeer and owner of the welcoming Knightstone Tea Rooms (formerly
the Aerodrome HQ), who gave us a short introduction in his garage/museum. We also had the personal assistance of his friends Dave Steer (a former GPO dowser) and Neville Cole.
The 15 assembled TDs divided into three groups and, hoods-up, ventured out into the Dartmoor mist in a manner possibly rather reminiscent of the cosmopolitan groups of young men who flew out of here in the 1940s.
Michael had helpfully provided us with a sheet listing the 25 known crashes and emergency landings at the site during WWII - the exact locations of the vast majority of which are no longer known. One of our tasks was to find some of them.
It soon became apparent that the site is awash with military history. From the building of the runways to the construction of the operational buildings, from the men who staffed the communications unit to the personnel who lost their lives on site, energetically this is a seriously complex complex.
The main group, helped by local enthusiast Neville Cole, did indeed find the location of several of the planes and servicemen who had come to grief. Traces of crashes and emergency landings made by Spitfires, Blenheims, Lancasters and Mustangs were detected – some of which seemed to corroborate the known details, while others were somewhat at odds with the, admittedly incomplete, written record.
Neville frantically documented the emerging information coming in from his various charges on his progressively dampening map
Several of the incidents on Michael’s list were examined, and the details verified or questioned. Even at this distance in time, the more sensitive amongst us found this process quite evocative, in a way that made rods and pendulums rather superfluous. The more clairvoyant could even sense the planes taking off and landing. As with several other former military sites that we have visited, the historical facts may be investigated in a coldly academic manner, but the fear and the feelings live on.
Dave Steer’s group, who were despatched to confirm and investigate the site of the former telephone exchange, worked on the routing of the cable runs and the access points - and on the working conditions of the staff. They investigated the structure of the former building, found the sites of the ducts, the office desks, the air raid shelter – even the toilet.
For my part, I was asked to check the width of a runway, but became confused when it only seemed to be a few yards wide. Even with my limited knowledge of aviation, I knew there was something awry there. The edge I had detected was that of the Old Crapstone Road, which dowsed as having been removed and relocated about 68 years ago (ie Circa 1938/9) to make way for the runway. I also followed the course of a length of Somerfeld Track (a kind of wire mesh laid into the ground to minimise the impact of operational vehicles carving up the insubstantial soil of Dartmoor). This accorded reasonably well with residual bits of metal in the ground, which was reassuring - and taking a spade to the turf of what is now a National Park, to verify my findings, was very much out of the question!
While the presence of dowsers in a group certainly generated a lot of information in a relatively short space of time, for greater accuracy, a dowser working alone in a more meditative environment would probably be able to achieve a closer match to the actual events - as our colleague Bob Tulley had discovered some weeks earlier.
By the time we were called back to Battlestation HQ for afternoon tea, one group had strayed off the site altogether and were investigating another crash site adjacent to what is now Yelverton roundabout.
Such are the layers of activity in the area that we even had the brief opportunity to dowse for a railway tunnel that passes under the eastern end of the site. This had the locomotive enthusiasts interested – and a potential future outing to the ghostly remains of a local section of railway was eagerly discussed over pieces of fruit cake.
We resolved to return to this fascinating window on our recent history, when we had had the chance to digest the experiences and the information we had gained.
I am very grateful to Bob Tulley for setting up this visit, to Michael Hayes for abandoning his busy restaurant on a Sunday afternoon to guide us around – and to Dave and Neville for their much valued assistance.
For dowsers with an interest in military history, this site is a must - flat and easily accessible off the A386, it has acres of dowsable public open space and there is just enough factual information to get you going - but not enough to cramp the investigative mind. Michael Hayes - and his highly-recommended Knightstone Tea Rooms - can be contacted on 01822- 853679. Enjoy.