All posts by John Laker

Warren Wood Investigations – October 2012

We visited Warren Wood twice in October. On the 14th we continued to excavate Squares B, C and G. These squares were photographed (see photograph of Square B, below) and Square G was drawn . Also below is a photograph of the pot sherd found within this context in Square G.

Square B. context 2
Pot sherd with inclusions

On the 28th, much time was spent measuring the depths of each on the contexts of the the seven squares within Trench 9. context 2 of Square F was also drawn. Squares A and E were excavated further (see photograph of dedicated volunteers, below).

Excavating and drawing in action!

Warren Wood Investigations – September 2012

Four visits were made to the site in September.

Trench 9, Drawing Frame over square B

More excavation work was conducted in the ‘bank’ area of Trench 9. The bank appears to have around 150mm (6″) of relatively fine sand of an orangey hue. As the sandy cover is on top of a bank, it is currently felt that this is not geology and, therefore, the bank was constructed for a specific purpose (yet unknown).

Context 2, Square B, Trench 9
Context 2, Square B, Trench 9

After Square B was photographed (see above), the square was drawn (see below).

Drawing of Context 2, Square B, Trench 9
Drawing of Context 2, Square B, Trench 9 (click to view full size)


Ad Chicksands Per Omnibus: A Tour of the Medmenham Collection and Wrest Park

There we were stood in a line clutching our photo ID and faced with an armed military guard. A less likely looking bunch of terrorists you could hardly imagine but rules are rules especially when you’re visiting the Defence Intelligence and Security Centre. It was October 6th and we’d arrived at Chicksands, just south of Bedford, formerly an RAF station. Our none too secret mission was to view the Medmenham Collection kept there. This covers the history of military aerial photographic interpretation and imagery analysis from the time of World War One up to the present day. Most readers will be familiar with the vital wartime role performed at what is now the Danesfield House luxury hotel and was once RAF Medmenham. The importance of the work that was undertaken there has achieved greater public awareness since the showing of the BBC’s recent documentary called Operation Crossbow.

I was surprised by the scale of the well-displayed exhibition, filling as it did two rooms plus the obligatory shop where one publication described how Bedford became the intelligence capital of the country in WWII. While our main purpose was to view the Medmenham Collection, the wider tale of aerial photography and its uses was fascinating. I especially enjoyed the descriptions of the earliest attempts at aerial photography from the balloons which the American Samuel Cody first introduced in this country for military observation moving on to the perilous attempts by the pioneering pilots leaning out of their flimsy planes using plate cameras over the Western Front. We learned that even pigeons with miniature cameras strapped to their breasts had been pressed into service (see below).

Chicksand Pigeon

The existence of the Medmenham Collection is due substantially to the enthusiasm of Medmenham Club members which comprises serving and retired personnel associated with this discipline. We were well served by our guide, Mike Mockford, who’d worked himself at RAF Medmenham in the post-war years. In April 1941 a RAF photographic interpretation unit moved to Danesfield House at Medmenham as its previous location at Wembley was short of space. During 1942 and 1943 the unit gradually expanded and was involved in the planning stages of practically every operation of the war and in every aspect of intelligence. By 1945 the daily intake of material averaged 25,000 negatives and 60,000 prints. By VE-day the print library, which documented and stored worldwide cover, held 5 million prints from which 40,000 reports had been produced.

The development of the technology was well illustrated. Central to the success of the unit was was the stereoscope, a simple Victorian invention which brought the enemy landscape into 3D. 3D photography was achieved by each print taken overlapping the next frame by 60%. The results when viewed by stereoscope allowed the photographic interpreters (PIs) to measure height, especially of unidentified new structures – such as rockets and their launch sites. This technique was to prove decisive and saved thousands from the V missiles barrage at the end of the war. The V1 – known as the doodlebug – first landed in London in the summer of 1944, bringing terror to the capital. The Germans were using less conspicuous launch sites, and brought missiles out at the last moment.  But these sites were identified by PIs who spotted scarring on the land caused by the jets’ booster motors dropping off. These sites were targeted in what was called Operation Crossbow and the doodlebug barrage was limited. The day after the last V1 landed on 7 September 1944, however, the first V2 crashed in west London. Because it was silent, offering no warning, there was no defence against it.  Since the V2 was mobile, bombers directed by RAF Medmenham attacked the supporting infrastructure, such as roads and railways. In the end, the advancing allied armies over-ran the launch sites. It has been claimed that should Hitler’s revenge weapons and their more advanced jet technology not have been countered then the story of the end of the Second World War might have been very different. Medmenham also contributed to the mass bombing raids that brought Germany to its knees. Prints were taken to nearby Hughenden Manor – codenamed Hillside in the war – where Air Ministry staff created maps for bombing missions, including the famous ‘Dambusters’ raid.  RAF Medmenham played a central role in countering Germany’s military capacity and its achievement should rank alongside that of its sister organisation, Bletchley Park, with its code breaking operation.

A large number of photographic interpreters were recruited from the Hollywood Film Studios, American personnel having provided an increasing element of Medmenham’s staff as the war advanced. One of the American forces staff was Colonel Elliott Roosevelt, son of the USA President. Among the British personnel, the actor Dirk Bogarde was employed in the Army reconnaissance section. Two renowned archaeologists also worked there as interpreters: Dorothy Garrod, the first woman to hold an Oxbridge Chair, and Glyn Daniel, who went on to gain popular acclaim as the host of the television game show Animal, Vegetable or Mineral? Up to 150 women were also employed as PIs including Sarah Churchill, the daughter of the wartime Prime Minister who visited her from time to time at Medmenham. It was Constance Babington Smith, the journalist and writer, who was credited with the discovery of the V1 at Peenemunde on the Baltic Sea coast of Germany.

One completely unsuspected spin off of Medmenham’s work was the construction of scale models. On the walls of the museum were two large models of the D-Day landing beaches, aids which were vital to the Allied invasion of Europe.

This was not the only treat this day. Leaving Chicksands we drove to Wrest Park in Bedfordshire. After decades behind virtually closed doors, its treasures overgrown and largely unknown, English Heritage has revived one of Britain’s largest and most important ‘secret gardens’. It offers a wonderful 90-acre historic landscape, a French-style mansion, impressive garden statuary, a large central water feature and miles of reinstated historic pathways. We saw it at its best on a warm, sunny day. To anyone who like me had never even heard of Wrest Park, I urge you to drive around the M25 to visit this delightful garden.

Wrest Park
Wrest Park

Our visit to these two attractions was superbly organised by Mike Hyde as a fund raiser and promotion event for the Marlow Museum (now open Sundays 2-4pm till March) which needs the support of all of us concerned with our local heritage.

Jeff Griffiths

Hurley Weir Capstan and the Tea Magnate

A recent National Gardens Scheme open day at the SAS Institute at Medmenham provided access to the Hurley Weir capstan. This is historically important as the only remaining example on the Thames of those capstans that once hauled boats upstream when there were only ‘flash’ locks – rather like dams – and not the ‘pound’ locks of today. The men who provided the manual power to turn the capstan wheel – usually rough individuals – were known as ‘tow rags’ which provides one explanation of from where the unflattering description ‘toe rag’ derives. The capstan had survived until the 20th century because of the efforts of Viscount Devonport who pledged to preserve it and donated oak from his estate to replace decayed timbers. The capstan wheel (see photograph below) was then restored in the 1980s by two men, David Empringham and Christopher Barnes-Wallis, the son of the man who invented the famous ‘bouncing bomb’ used in the WWII ‘Dam Buster’ raids.

Capstan at Hurley

The capstan wheel is to be found on the Buckinghamshire bank of the river close to the end of the walkway over Hurley weir (see photo bottom left) It stands on that portion of riverside land that Hudson Ewbanke Kearley, later 1st Viscount Devonport, bought to annoy his neighbour and rival Robert Hudson of Sunlight Soap fame who had acquired the next door Danesfield estate in the 1890s.

Kearley (1856 – 1934) was a grocer and politician who founded the International Tea Company’s Stores, became the first chairman of the Port of London Authority and served as Minister of Food Control during World War I. Kearley’s fortune was based on importing and distributing tea as is commemorated by the sprig of tea in the carved crest over the main door Wittington House. Hilaire Belloc wrote this savage verse about the man who’d been the MP for Devonport:

  • The grocer Hudson Kearley, he
  • When purchasing his barony
  • Considered first, we understand,
  • The title of Lord Sugarsand,
  • Or then again he might have been
  • Lord Underweight of Margarine:
  • But being of the nobler sort
  • He took the title Devonport.

In point of fact, Kearley had actually refused to pay to acquire his peerage citing his unpaid posts of national importance as justification enough for his elevation. An interesting history of the century-old Wittington House, built by Kearley and which now stands at the heart of the SAS Institute’s Medmenham estate, can be found at

by Jeff Griffiths

Warren Wood Investigations – August 2012

Excavations continued during August with fewer volunteers, due to Summer holidays (see photograph of willing helpers below).

Happy volunteers!

In August Squares C and D were excavated down into contexts two, as were Squares F and G (see photograph of Square G below).

Sqaure G, Context 2

In Square B, context two, a sherd of Pottery with inclusions was found (see photograph below). This sherd appeared similar to Iron Age pottery sherds found during 2011/12.

Pottery Sherd with inclusions

Warren Wood Investigations – July 2012

Excavation continued in July with Square G taken down through context one and Square F entering context two. In Square F some Pot Boilers were found weighing 49gms in total (pot boilers were used by pre-historic man and are the remains of stone and flints that were heated in fires and then placed in containers of water in order to boil it).

Pot Boilers from Square F

Drawings were made of each Square during July and on a regular basis and an example is shown below from Square G. 




Warren Wood Investigations – March/April 2012

On Sunday the 18th of March, AIM began its investigations at Warren Wood, Little Marlow. The main objective was to date the larger outer enclosure by excavating a trench across its bank and ditch. See the trench in the photograph below.

Trench 9

During our investigations in 2011/12 we dug 8 test pits. Consequently our new trench was numbered ‘9’. The trench measured 1 metre x 7 metres. The intention was to excavate one context/level at a time, therefore gradually revealling a profile along the 7 metre side of the trench. The first 1 metre x 1 metre square (‘A’) was excavated at the top of the trench (see photograph below).

Square ‘A’










In April, square A was excavated through context/level one. This context was a dark brown rich organic soil.