RAF Trelanvean bunker


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Under the Radar

A top-secret radar station, instrumental in detecting an imminent Luftwaffe raid isn't something naturally connected with living in Cornwall. However, a significant piece of WW2 history, undisturbed for decades, hidden beneath an overgrown plantation at the edge of Crousa Downs, near Zoar, on the way to St. Keverne, has been excavated to confirm this fact.

Driving under the tunnel of old trees lining the road, there was little of note: a taken for granted neglected wood, predominant in springtime with wild, exotically-pink rhododendron strangling the old trees. Last summer, I noticed that the scrub and rhododendrons were being cleared and assumed, wrongly, that Natural England had run out of heathland to fence and had been given the job of clearing the 'jungle'; apparently, they are part-funding a scheme to investigate the remains of a wartime radar station within the Twenty Acre Plantation. As the vegetation was removed, the site opened up to reveal outcrops of granite boulders, mature Maritime Pines, fallen trees, pathways, a number of derelict buildings and three earth-banked mounds concealing bunkers; one of which has been uncovered and can be seen as a concrete and red brick building...the ruined remains of the radar station - RAF Trelanvean. The land belongs to Michael Tylor of Lanarth Farm and planning permission has been granted to convert one of the bunkers into a rural classroom

RAF Trelanvean bunker Rotor 6 bunker Bunker being converted

I'm fascinated in what 'lies beneath' and contacted Charlie Johns, the senior archaeologist at Cornwall Council and learnt that the Historic Environment Projects team had been commissioned to carry out an archaeological assessment and record their findings. Charlie has been most generous and allowed me to read the report of his findings. The clearing of the site has identified some of the buildings as a well, toilet block, stores and a possible guard hut. Most important, are the earth-covered bunkers that would have housed generators, transmitters and receivers; instrumental for the station's operational function.

Because the radar station was top secret very few records and plans exist of the subterranean world of intelligence gathering. My understanding is that RAF Trelanvean was one of a chain of similar radar stations built around the coast of Britain forming an early warning system to detect low flying enemy aircraft. 'Chain Home' was the code name given to this protective ring of defence. Darkness was no place for enemy aircraft to hide as the radar stations on the Lizard, detecting nighttime attacks, supplied Bomber Command with an early warning for fighter planes to be scrambled and to intercept invading attack. After WW2, RAF Trelanvean saw additional use in the Cold War and was decomissioned in 1958.

Given the hush-hush nature of the site, little is held on official record and this is why the recollections of local, personal memories plays a significant role. My contribution is both apocryphal and personal. There are earth-covered mounds and disused buildings scattered across Goonhilly Downs and unnatural bumps in the moorland on the outskirts of St. Keverne; referred to as 'bunkers'. I had no idea of their timeframe in modern military history; I knew that one, in a hamlet of Trewillis, was built in the early 50's, a Rotor 6 bunker and built in response to the Soviet threat, it soon became redundant due to technological advances, but brought back to life as a craft brewery, selling Cornish beers, www.lizardales.co.uk Once the buildings were decommissioned, they invited a wonderful 'wrecking' opportunity! There are accounts, which I can't verify, of homes 'acquiring' expensive teak floors and a village shop's window had seen an earlier life as a glass panel in one of the bunkers.

Bunker uncovered Studio entrance Interior of studio Studio control room

I'm pretty sure my husband, John, was the first to see the potential of converting a bunker into something functional other than a big, square, concrete 'box'. In the late '70s, he and a friend, Lionel Curnow, started a small recording studio at our home; it outgrew the space as it's not easy to find suitable premises with the space for recording equipment, and critically, soundproofed, in the heart of the Cornish countryside. A friend joked, 'What you need is a nuclear bunker!'...no problem, there were several up the road!

A farmer had a bunker on his land and when it was put to him that it could be used as a recording studio, probably thought it an airy-fairy idea but it could bring in rent and gave us the key to the heavy, rusted door at the end of a concrete alley. On entry, dodging the nesting swallows, were a series on dungeon-like rooms, piled with heavy- duty junk. At ceiling level, every room had massive aluminium trunking with grills held in place by steel brackets for the ventilation system; one room, that became the recording studio control room, contained a huge, sarcophagus-like, metal box - 6' x 4' x 3' - mounted on a concrete plinth, with ducting that exited through the ceiling, via a flue to the outside through the top of the bunker. There was a hole in the floor that was filled with water that could have housed, underground cables. There was electricity which came underground from another bunker across the field through heavy, armoured cable, but no evidence of a water supply.

A crazy place and crazy times! Even it's dilapidated state, imagining beyond the rubble, hay bales, chickens and visits from the occasional cow, there was so much promise. The junk and trunking were removed and attempts to scrape off a thick coat of crumbling, flaking distemper were abandoned. It took vision to transform the miserable square, concrete, dripping-damp, windowless room. into a creative space. The walls had to be covered with custom-built, acoustic absorbing panels and the ceiling was lined with cork sheets; the cork, incidentally, came from the bunker that is now used by Lizard Ales, where the walls had been covered in cork and then fixed with a fibre board finish. After a year to the day of hard work, the conversion from a defunct radar station to a vibrant recording studio was complete - an amazing, soundproofed, echo-free space, where musicians loved to work.

We take our surroundings for granted and accept Cornwall as a place that 'feels' ancient, transmitting in some subliminal way, a sense of belonging to an old past that's still visible with Celtic field systems, standing stones, old tracks: but it's a veiled sketch of history with limited facts. That's why we must conserve the legacy of modern times while we can. The individual pieces of a collaborative jigsaw, interlocking living memories, will record the part Cornwall played in protecting the safety of our island. There are so many unanswered questions: why are there so many bunkers on the Lizard? Are they in line of sight? Can anyone contribute in any small way? I so, please contact Charlie Johns. chjohns@cornwall.gov.uk

 

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