These days nobody pays any particular attention to aircraft flying over Dartmoor, perhaps if it’s a military helicopter or RAF fighter plane they might draw a bit more attention but on the whole such an event is an everyday occurrence. But just imagine if you had never seen an aeroplane close-up, would it cause alarm or excitement? It may well have been that you knew they existed and probably seen pictures of them, it could be that you had spotted one from a distance. But just think if all of a sudden one was flying low over your rooftop and it was performing acrobatic stunts, what would your reaction be to that? Well, I recently came across an article which appeared in the Exeter and Plymouth Gazette on the 17th of August 1934 that describes such an event. It was written by the well-know authoress – Beatrice Chase who lived at Venton House just outside Widecombe-in-the-Moor.
“During the past week, Widecombe-in-the-Moor has had the excitement of its first close-up aeroplane. Occasionally they fly over, but at a great height and various pilots have told me that it is undesirable to drop below 2,000 feet among the tors on account of the dangerous air currents or ‘pockets’.
I was standing in the Dartmoor Window (she gave such names to various features and rooms in her house), at 7.45 p.m, preparing to give the cats their last meal, when suddenly there came a roar like a ‘motor bike gone mad’ past the window. Peter Puss, who had been looking out, took cover under the table, apparently thinking the Last day was at hand. I said rude, if monotonous things about motor cyclists, when the roar came again with nothing to see and it suddenly dawned on me that it was from the air.
I fled through the ‘Room of Shadow’ into the front garden and there she was suspended just above my thatched roof, roaring like a hundred hungry tigers. It was simply terrifying. Then she rose and deliberately looped the loop. She hung suspended over the roof upside down and I breathlessly expected her occupants to shoot out head first. Then she righted herself and circled away, returning to tilt till her wings were vertical.
Two friends on Hollow Tor at the time were badly scared, thinking she had crashed, as, though they were higher than the house, she had flown so low as to be lost to sight.
The villagers flocked out top watch. Some ardent soul held aloft glasses of beer and toasted the intrepid pilot and passenger – a lady who waved a red scarf encouragingly in reply. Finally after a swoop, when I thought they could have picked off my weather cock, they sailed away over Widecombe Hill and disappeared.
Now for the sensations of Miss Enid Shortridge, the flier, she writes ” I was called to the booking office at Haldon, handed a ticket and told that my favourite Avro Cadet plane (G.A.C.O.Z.) was at my service and that Bebb would take me anywhere and do anything I liked. Then we got a map and I pointed out just where I thought Venton would be – and we came straight as a dye. Straight over Haldon. We could see Newton Abbot on the left, and Bovey Tracy on the right – and we passed over Hey and Saddle Tors. Then came the side of Rippon, and Dream Tor and the Poet’s Corner, and I pointed out Venton and we swooped. I was hanging overboard all the time seeing it from different angles. I recognised Hitchcock easily, saw the lovely new thatch and then was more than overjoyed to see you come out. I wanted to let you know we had arrived, but no phone was available. Still, they assured me that Pilot Bebb would soon let you know we’d arrived. A glorious rainbow chased us nearly all the way, far below with the bow bent against us. The effects are wonderful, and life up aloft is so peaceful and so beautiful. It is the difference between soul and body and all petty things vanish completely, and only good and great things remain.
Another lovely thought. My machine was blue so it was a real Blue Bird to bring you happiness, wasn’t it? I hope you weren’t really scared. It is all so safe in the hands of these crack pilots. You looked so sweet looking up at me. Bebb said; ‘Was your friend that well-built lady in red?’
It is now 32 years since I first entered Widecombe for a four weeks’ holiday. There was then no telephone, no motorcar, no wireless, and, least of all, an aeroplane. Never did I dream of living to see one hovering over my old thatched roof as easily as a swallow.”
Just a few clarifications, Haldon Aerodrome was active from 1928 and officially opened in 1929 with commercial services running from 1933 between Cardiff and Haldon. The rainbow reference could well allude to the name Beatrice Chase gave her mother – the ‘Rainbow Maker’ and Dream Tor was her name for Top Tor.