Yesterday, on the hottest evening of the year, archaeologist Adam Stout and I became detectives – on the hunt for the location of the Royhill Holiday Camp, set up by the founder of the Ancient Druid Order, George Watson MacGregor-Reid in the 1930s.
Adam has written a biography on the old Chief that appears in the Mount Haemus collection, and will be giving an illustrated talk on him in Salisbury medieval hall on 31st August for our Mount Haemus day celebration. He had spent the day in the local county archives trying to track down exactly where it had been. It was functioning until 1957 and consisted of large communal halls, dormitory buildings, kitchens and so on, but remarkably little trace of it remains in the records.
Armed with cameras, maps and notes we took the 20 min drive from Lewes to Blackboys – a lovely bit of Sussex countryside of woodland, dales and meadows. After some creative trespassing and chats with various local people we located the site. A broad flat meadow on Shepherd’s Hill, with just the old concrete footings remaining here and there, and the remnants of a pond that in the holiday camp brochure was featured as having a Japanese garden around it. Here is Adam beside the site:
I was there because I was checking a detail for a forthcoming book: The Book of English Magic. We had thought that part of the camp was now a Youth Hostel which is located in woodland below the site, and in the book I was directing readers there for a visit to soak up the atmosphere. The hostel is certainly a great place to stay, but turns out to have an entirely different history: it was built to house Spanish children, refugees from Hitler’s bombing of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War.
Adam and I then joined the Blackboys local history society where we continued our detective work – moving now to oral history. MacGregor Reid had been an advocate of what he termed ‘simplicitarianism’ which involved living lightly on the land, and sometimes apparently dispensing with the need for clothes. Elderly members of the society had plenty of tales to tell, all of which could have been true or which may have been ‘Chinese whispers’: holidaymakers in their birthday suits had been spotted before the war (lots of giggles at this point from our informants); Lord Haw Haw had been seen making a broadcast there (it’s true that Haw Haw had been in the area, but MacGregor Reid was a socialist not a fascist, so this seems unlikely); MacGregor-Reid told someone that he had known Lawrence of Arabia personally (unlikely thinks Adam).
In this photo you can see Adam teasing information out of Pam Greenwood who came to live in the house adjacent to the camp from 1939 to 1948. From the age of 4yrs to 12 yrs she can still remember visiting the camp and spotting the holidaymakers, and then the servicemen who were billetted there during the war.
Piecing together memories and physical remains, even if prosaic concrete footings (we located the old toilet block complete with old pipes), is peculiarly satisfying. Evoking the past in this way helps us to touch the mystery of transience – somehow these things have gone and yet not gone. Their imprint remains, the memories are still there, the world is just a little different thanks to them.