Wartime evacuee recalls a year in North Devon

Chris Palmer and his wife Ruby (centre) surrounded by (from left) grand-daughter Daisy, son Tim and

Chris Palmer and his wife Ruby (centre) surrounded by (from left) grand-daughter Daisy, son Tim and his wife Veronica, grand-daughter Bluebell, daughter Rebecca and grand-daughter Caitlin. - Credit: Archant

Chris Palmer returns to the High Bickington farm 70 years later and with his entire family after first staying there as a child in 1940.

A wartime evacuee whose year on a High Bickington farm left a lifetime impression has returned 73 years later with his entire family.

When Chris Palmer left a London station in the summer of 1940 laden with suitcase, gas mask and wearing a name label, he had no idea his final destination was a remote farm in North Devon called Lee Barton.

Despite the basic nature of his new existence, he found a sense of contentment with farm life and the Harris family who took him in, and has never forgotten his time there.

Now aged 83, Chris, together with his wife Ruby, their children Timothy and Rebecca, plus granddaughter Caitlin and Texan granddaughters Daisy and Bluebell, have just spent a week at Lee Barton in the holiday accommodation there.

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Still a working farm, today it is owned by Richard and Glenda Tucker, while their daughter Lorraine Beel manages the self catering holiday cottages created from former farm outbuildings.

Chris has enjoyed a distinguished career, first as an architectural draftsman, he became a television cameraman and then later director and producer of household name television shows including the ITV holiday programme Wish You Were Here....?

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But in 1940 as Hitler’s bombers began raiding London and the Battle of Britain began, he was just another faceless child on a railway station: “We were all put on a train, we didn’t know where we were going, but with gas masks, labels and a change of underwear we were sent to High Bickington,” he told the Gazette.

“We were put into the village hall, put in pairs and I remember we stood on the stage, then people who wanted to take on an evacuee chose or were given a pair of kids.”

He and another boy, Alan Foley, were the last to be chosen — by Eli Harris and his wife Hannah, who had two sons John and Alfred and a daughter, Evelyn.

“The year at Lee Barton was quite remarkable,” continued Chris.

“Inevitably, slowly but surely children returned to London - Alan went home, but I stayed.

“The farmer and his family led a frugal life and I was fed the same as them. There were no luxuries, no eggs or bacon, but there was lots of rabbit and ‘junket’ (a milk based pudding) plus they made their own bread. There was no gas, electricity or running water either.

“But they were very kind to me, I did jobs around the farm such as separating the cream from the milk, but it was something I enjoyed.”

Chris went to the village school at High Bickington, a long walk from the farm and he recalls catching rheumatic fever during his time there after swimming in the river with other youngsters.

One vivid memory was of cutting off rats’ tails after the animals had been driven from a crop stack at threshing time and then killed by men with pitchforks. He took the tails to the council in Barnstaple and received a penny per tail – 39d in total in old money.

Chris briefly went to school in Torrington but after winning a scholarship, he returned to London to attend St Dunstan’s College.

Although his Devon sojourn had ended, in the years after he made an effort to stay in touch with Lee Barton and visited when he could, speaking to the youngest son, Alfred in the 1980s on the way back from filming for Wish You Were Here...? in Ilfracombe.

In 1992 he returned and found the farm derelict.

All five of the Harris family he stayed with have since died, but he is delighted with the transformation the Tuckers have brought about as the farm enters a new era.

“My time there left a tremendous impression on me, I saw the cycle of a whole year of farming,” he said.

“I wasn’t the evacuee who came, left and never saw the place again, and to be here now is remarkable – the current owners have done a fantastic job and everybody coming here wants for nothing.”

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