The Bearley Agricultural Holiday Camp lies east of the older part of’ the village beyond the church on the road to Snitterfield. Originally intended for use as a Heavy Bomber Base for the Royal Air Force, it was instead used as a training station. An undiscovered fault had limited the take-off length of the runway, thus rendering it impossible for heavy aircraft to land safely.
Up till 1942, the war had touched Bearley but lightly, and unbroken woodland stretched from the village to her neighbour Snitterfield. The village stood surrounded by the ancient beauty of centuries. It was naturally with some dismay that Bearley saw the beauty destroyed, and acres of woodland cut down by gangs of Irish and Indian workmen housed in Nissen huts, and an ugly though necessary grey camp spring up where Shakespeare’s Forest of Arden had spread its enchantment. Worse still, an ancient timber framed cottage of wattle and daub construction, was bulldozed down to make way for a new road to the aerodrome. Though it collapsed the ancient oak framework could not be so easily wrecked and had to be sawn apart.
In May, 1943, the first contingent of airmen arrived, and their advent was regarded with mixed feelings at first, but when routine was established the social life of the community flourished. Airmen were invited into Bearley homes and treated as members of the family, and in turn people were invited to the Camp dances, concerts, and to many other social functions. It says much of the lasting friendship wrought between some families and airmen that during last summer, two ex-airmen, unconnected in any way with Bearley, have called at the camp with their families to “look round the old place” and to visit people who once offered them hospitality. There had been four RAF men in the church choir, and indeed, one of the recent visitors used to play the organ for special Service occasions, tragic as well as festive, no doubt, considering the proximity of’ the aerodrome and its purpose.
It is on record that one freezing night in winter a pilot radioed that he was about to crash land on the ‘drome as his undercarriage could not be lowered, and swiftly all Service ambulances, fire engines and medical staff were at action stations ready for the emergency, to say nothing of the M. O. clad only in pyjamas. Time passed while those waiting on the ground slowly froze, until the pilot radioed a second, rather sheepish message saying that he had made a slight mistake, it was the indicator not working, – the undercarriage was alright and he promptly made a perfect landing! It is presumed that the medical staff then turned their attention to the M.O, but whether it was for frostbite or an apoplectic fit, we shall never know,
True, there were certain incidents which called for disciplinary action in matters between inhabitants and the R.A.F., such as when a local householder found his plum trees suspiciously bare one August morning, considering there had been no high wind in the night .With admirable Sherlock Holmes deduction the owner followed up the astonishingly large trail of evidence left at the foot of the tree, to wit, one broken glass, one box of matches, and several raffle tickets, which finally led to the culprit. The officer’s voice booming over the tannoy the next morning was extra loud – loud enough for the village to hear that ‘such behaviour would not be tolerated’. It never happened again.
In 1944 Belgian and French airmen were at the camp for a time, along with a considerable number of Commonwealth men, Canadians, New Zealanders and Australians, nor must the Women Section be forgotten, nor a number of W.A.A .F. were on a site, later to be known as the Bottom Camp, towards the Birmingham road. It was a sore point among some that Service men were not allowed to escort the W.A.A.F. further than the farm gate at the top of the long, steep and lonely lane which led to their quarters. In 1945 an Italian in a prisoners-of-war party employed at the camp, had a difference of opinion with another, hit him on the head with a weapon and promptly escaped. This news was received with joy by the Troops, as an order went out that the W.A.A.F. must definitely be escorted home, as while this dangerous character was at large. The joy was short-lived, as the “dangerous character” made the mistake of being caught the following day and the order was rescinded, never to be repeated. The camp subsequently housed Italian and German prisoners- of-war, then European volunteer workers (displaced persons as they were called at first) and British volunteers under the Government Lend a Hand on the Land Scheme. To-day, under private enterprise, people of all nations and from many walks of life, come to combine a healthy country holiday with helping local farmers. There are also some thirty to forty permanent residents, Latvians and Ukrainians who remain when the camp is closed for the winter, and some British agricultural trainees.
When the R.A.F. left early in 1946, there were still some German prisoners in the Bottom Camp, but all empty huts were soon occupied by “squatters” who moved in from other districts, a countrywide movement of homeless families which originated in London. Bearley squatters took possession of huts on College Hill, Dipwell, Oaktree and Hospital Grove, presenting a formidable problem to the authorities. Lucky ones found light and water. Others had no amenities. To-day most of them have been given real homes in the new housing estate of Oaktree Close and Grange Road, but a few still remain in huts, which are demolished as they are vacated.
In February 1947 the Agricultural Committee took over part of the Top Camp, as one of the “Lend a Hand on the Land” Camps for volunteer agricultural workers, in continuation of a successful wartime venture. Suitable alterations and decorations were made, helped by those sad victims of war, Lithuanians and Latvians, whose countries had been overrun by Russians and Germans then again by the Russians, who still occupy their homelands. In June 1947 some 380 men arrived in Bearley and were housed in the Bottom Camp after it was vacated by the German prisoners. At this time the foreign exiles were solely employed on the land and the Agricultural Committee appointed a warden to take charge of them. At the same time the first Volunteer Agricultural Season opened at the Top Camp, also under an appointed warden, and continued each summer until December 1954.
Communal life for the workers in the Bottom Camp, though easier than camp life in Germany, Was still only a makeshift existence, as the majority of them were cut off from their families, not knowing how they were faring. Some were lads still in their teens; others were older men whose life had been uprooted when forced to join either side of the opposing armies. Every effort was made to celebrate their national festivals in their own style, and concerts and dances were held at the Top Camp in the old R.A.F. gymnasium, (now known as the Cinema Hall), to which European Volunteer Workers of both sexes from other parts of the country were invited. Football and basket ball matches were arranged with E.V.W. visiting teams and cooperation with village functions welcomed. Several members of the female staff joined the Women’s Institute which used to meet once a month in one of the old camp rooms. Such meetings were a welcome break, no doubt, for them – all female in place of the usual all male atmosphere! – and a good chance to display their needlework and handicraft, at which the Baltic women excel. By 1950 the directed period of three years in Agricultural work was over, and apart from the Ukrainians who had joined the others later, the men were free to choose their own jobs. The younger ones in particular left to go into industry to Birmingham, to the wool trade in Bradford, Huddersfield or Halifax, to cotton in Lancashire, to the steel industry in Corby, or as orderlies in hospitals. Some emigrated to the Commonwealth, where they felt they had a better chance of pursuing their own original occupations in countries crying out for skilled workers. For the older ones the story was different. It was harder for them to start life anew and they were happier living in a closer knit community of hostel life, speaking their own languages. Yugo-Slavs, Estonians and Poles had joined the hostel during the three years, but the only people who had to wait longer for their freedom were the Ukrainians, who had fought for the Germans during the war.
Several wardens came and went between 1947 and 1950, and by December 1951 numbers had dwindled so much that the Bottom Camp was closed and the men moved up to the Top Camp. Land Army girls had been there, helping in the running of the summer season, driving campers to work, or performing clerical or domestic duties. They left in December 1951. By 1951 post war travel for young people had become comparatively easy, and through two organisations in London, with the co-operation of the Agricultural Committees and the Home Office, a number of people from the Continent could come for a month at a time working on the land with the British volunteers. Any extra money over after paying for board and lodging was saved for a quick tour of parts of England before returning home. Most of them were students who had long summer vacations lasting until October or November to enable them to go abroad. The “Allied Circle” cater for anybody from abroad. The G.E.R.(German Educational Reconstruction) is an organisation solely for Germans. Visits to the Memorial Theatre at Stratford-on-Avon were very popular as the Agricultural Committee had reserved a certain number of seats for one performance each week, which could be bought in the camp.
Work started at eight in the morning with packed sandwich lunches and tea to brew on the farms or in individual flasks, and jobs consisted of hoeing, weeding, planting, soft fruit picking, haymaking, harvesting, flax-pulling, potato-lifting, threshing, plum and apple picking, as well as a variety of farm jobs which might require additional labour. By 5.30 p.m. campers were back ready for a hot meal and the evening’s enjoyment. Dances were arranged, as well as coach trips, a weekly cinema show, table tennis, T.V., as well as clock-golf outside and a rather limited game of football or netball on the green. A large number of people always came in October for the potato harvest when the charge for board was low but the corresponding pay for the job higher. This was the last concession left after twelve years of Government camps, apart from rebate on campers’ train fares in the later months of the year. It was rumoured in 1954 that the camp would be closing at the end of the year as the Government was winding all camps up, during that year only seventeen had been operated in England, of which four were in Warwickshire.
In May 1954 the Warden-in-Charge began negotiations with the various Ministries concerned, with a view to taking over the camp and running it as a private concern, as local farmers still needed casual labour. By December the idea was an accomplished fact, and on January 1st, 1955, the running of the camp changed hands and continued under the management of four partners, the ex-warden and his wife, Mr. & Mrs. Vesey, and Mr. & Mrs. Davis, a one-time member of the Agricultural Committee) and his wife.
The Agricultural Holiday Camp still consists of the same buildings, apart from two, one bordering the Snitterfield Road which has been turned into the village school for the nine to eleven year-olds, and an adjoining building now used as a store for produce from the local canning factory. Internal· facilities were re-organized on a bigger scale. There is now a large recreation room, with extra table-tennis tables, a snooker table, bar billiards, piano and dartboards. In an end room adjoining there is a licensed Club, which is open to members from Bearley, to campers as temporary members during their stay. On Monday nights during the recent season of 1955 there were dances in the Cinema Hall attended by a limited number of people from Bearley as well as the campers. On Tuesday’s table-tennis and snooker tournaments were held in the recreation room, and on Wednesdays, a new social activity tried in the form of square dancing with the aid of organising members of the English Folk Dance and Song Society. On Wednesdays and Thursdays there was also the visit to the theatre with tickets already bought in advance and sold to campers on Monday nights. Friday night being the last night for most people, a Social was held but only for campers on this occasion, and Saturday mornings: were the occasion for much waving and exchanging of addresses, and sometimes of a few tears as well as goodbyes.
English classes were started for foreign students, included in their charges, for learning English is another reason for their coming to the camp, and a quiet room established for anybody who wished to read or write without disturbance. For the first time farm work was not compulsory, and campers could stipulate beforehand whether they wished to work or not. In the past two or three years no less than twenty-six nationalities have passed through the camp, Germans, French, Spaniards, Belgians, Dutch, Yugo-Slavs, Greeks, Cypriots, Danes, Swedes, Norwegians, Finns, Italians, Indians, Malayans, Nigerians, Jamaicans, South Africans, New Zealanders, Indo- Chinese, Australians, Canadians, Algerians, Americans and Egyptians, as well as the Latvians and Ukrainians, not to mention natives of these Islands. Although a new generation has grown up since the beginning of the war, it is interesting to note that hardly any bitterness remains between older members of nations Which once were called on to fight each other. It is rewarding to know that the opportunity exists here for young and old of different races to get to know each other, and that such initial meetings further exchange visits to other countries. Itis a pity that a week or fortnight is too short a time in which to master a new language. Perhaps Esperanto can be introduced into the curriculum!
When so many buildings on disused aerodromes are falling into decay it is pleasant to reflect that here the swords have almost literally been beaten into ploughshares and that former friends and foes, the hates of war forgotten, are carrying out one of mankind’s oldest and most worthwhile tasks, that of tilling the land, in the friendly atmosphere of Bearley’s Holiday Camp.