Nevil Shute Norway Foundation

Dartmouth 2008

A report by John Anderson

Eleven dedicated Shutists assembled at Dartmouth on the weekend of May 10th and 11th. Our lodgings and "base camp" was the Townstal Farmhouse hotel situated up the hill from the picturesque town of Dartmouth in south Devon, a location that features in ""Most Secret" and also "Lonely Road". Once gathered, and greetings exchanged, we headed down into town for dinner on Friday evening at the Cherub Inn, claiming to be one of the oldest buildings in Dartmouth it certainly looked the part as a black and white timber-framed building with overhanging upper floors. A table had been booked and we were up on the second floor accessed by two tightly winding spiral staircases. We enjoyed an excellent dinner but how the staff cope to bring food up the staircases was interesting to speculate. However all courses arrived intact.

Saturday 10th May.

The day dawned bright and clear bringing the prospect of warm sunny weather. Climbing out of Dartmouth town along the road to Slapton, we passed the possible location of the house of Commander Stevenson ("Lonely Road") high above the harbour, taking three cars for the short journey to Slapton Sands, a long stretch of coastline a few miles south of Dartmouth which was the site for Allied training exercises in preparation for D-Day. At the southern end is the Sherman tank which was recovered from the sea some years ago and stands as a memorial to those who lost their lives in exercise "Tiger" which went disastrously wrong with the loss of several hundred American lives.

Sherman tank

Further along the beach stands the memorial in thanks from the USA to the people of the villages roundabout who were evacuated to make room for the invasion exercises. It was quite an experience for me to read a passage from one of Shute's Second Front articles in which he described taking part in one of the invasion exercises with Canadian forces, being close to the locations he described as being devastated by the gunfire from the LCT on which he was travelling.

Then it was back into Dartmouth to meet up with those who had decided to explore the town to take lunch on the waterfront at the station cafe. Although it is described as the station cafe, one in fact has to take the ferry across the estuary in order to catch the train on the other side of the river.

Participants at Dartmouth 2008
Participants at Dartmouth 2008
Mike Meehan, Joost Meulenbroek, Bob Adderley, Laura Schneider, Alison Jenner, Andy Burgess, Kate Dawson-Taylor, Yvonne Scott, John Anderson, Matthew Sproston, David Dawson-Taylor and Philip Nixon.

Having consumed some lunch and gathering ourselves together we then drove the short distance to the Britannia Royal Naval College, the primary training base for naval officers in the UK. The College stands in magnificent grounds sloping upwards and overlooking the River Dart. We were met at the gates by guides, and having signed in, drove through immaculate grounds that surround the magnificent college building. Dating from 1905, the college takes officers under training who in previous years would have been from the age of 13 but now most of the entrants are graduates with an average age of 23. Entrants are both male and female and it's interesting to note that the term "Wren" is now no longer used; all entrants of both sexes are referred to as officers under training.

We entered the main college building and turning left along the main corridor was shown the magnificent chapel with its brand new glass doors, and stained glass windows to get dedicated to various admirals and also to combined operations forces. One interesting feature was in the area behind the choir stalls which was once referred to as "the hen den" where female officers were kept out of sight during services. From the chapel the long corridor leads to the senior gun room at the opposite end, but we were shown the Quarterdeck a magnificent space which is used to variety of purposes including balls. During the Second World War the college had been bombed and some damage sustained. We went up to the gallery which surrounds Quarterdeck which has sections with curved balustrades built in the period to accommodate ladies ball gowns that had a hoop at the bottom.

The College contains many treasures and memorabilia amongst which is a magnificent painting entitled "Trafalgar at 2:30" . We moved on to the Senior Gunroom (mess room) where Devonshire cream tea was served. Surrounded by a oak panelling and with the portraits of various illustrious admirals looking down upon us, we were served tea or coffee with scones, jam and Devonshire cream. This is an essential feature of any Shute gathering, and the absence of which means that the organiser can be lawfully prosecuted for failing to make proper arrangements. Down some steps and one is out on the bridge with a spectacular view looking out to sea of the town of Dartmouth and its river.

BRNC Bridge

Here is the spot with the parade ground beneath where the passing in and passing out parades take place and where the Queen or a member of the Royal family takes High Admiral's Divisions (formal parade) once a year. A visit to the College's museum and gift shop completed our tour and it was then time to get into our cars and go "ashore", because the College is a naval vessel and one comes aboard and goes ashore from it.
A truly wonderful visit to an historic Naval Establishment.

Then it was back to the hotel where John Anderson gave a presentation entitled "Nevil Shute and exercise Trousers" based on research he had been doing into the D-Day rehearsal that Shute took part in on the Devon coast in April 1944 and which he wrote about in his Second Front article. After that we travelled or walked down to town for reunion dinner at the Royal Castle Hotel close to the waterfront and which, under another name, is where the officers met to discuss their plans in "Most Secret". Thanks to Alison's excellent organisation we were served a superb meal and drank a toast to absent friends.

Sunday 11th May.

After breakfast we gathered in the lounge of the hotel where Andy Burgess gave a presentation entitled "39 steps to Marazan-well 19 anyway". Here he presented an analysis of the similarities in plot themes, characters, situations and dates between John Buchan's "39 steps" and Shute's early novels "Marazan". The similarities really are quite striking and make one wonder if, perhaps subconsciously, Shute based plot of Marazan on 39 steps which was one of Buchan's most successful novels. Andy also gave a report on a day he spent at the library of the Royal Aeronautical Society in London where he had trawled through the Society's journal in which the Shute and written a paper on the use of a water channel for visualising flows around aircraft, something he included in his first novel "Stephen Morris"".

This was followed by discussion on the plans for next year's conference in York, sponsorship and publicity, and Mike Meehan announced the first sponsorship of $400 which was for the conference document bags.

As a "thank you" present for Alison, for all her hard work in organising the weekend, she was presented with a watercolour painting of Brixham Harbour.

Our final excursion of the weekend was a trip by boat up the River Dart to Dittisham for lunch at the Ferry Boat Inn, a typical English pub right down on the side of the river, and where in "Most Secret" the French fishing boat Genevieve was moored.

After a delighful pub lunch, we returned to Dartmouth by boat, there to say our farewells and reluctantly break up the party to make our separate ways home.

Our grateful thanks go to Alison for all her hard work and planning and preparing what was a most enjoyable and memorable mini-gathering. Not only did all the arrangements go smoothly and work well, but she also managed to lay on warm sunny weather for the entire weekend!