The Establishment (Part 1)

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Last November, we (The Soddenham Historical Society & Curry Club) received a large batch of old photographs from a former Soddenhamite now living in Yorkshire. The photographs, all in an old biscuit tin (Peek Freans Assorted Cocktail Selection for those who are interested) had been sent to him by a relative who no longer wanted to keep them (and who has wished to remain anonymous) .

Some of them were in envelopes with enigmatic one-word labels – “Shame“, “The Lanes“, “Easy Life” and so forth. Some of these images have already been posted and we are looking to verify many of the others. One envelope in particular piqued all our interests.

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The envelope labelled “The Establishment” stirred long-forgotten memories amongst us as we finished off an extraordinary Jhinghey Bahar-Rasile in Peterborough (oh yes, we will travel for our curries). After a long postprandial discussion, it was decided that in light of the the very recent and embarrassing ‘Soddenham Barrow’ debacle, we should conduct a more thorough investigation amongst ourselves before releasing any ‘speculations’ to the public.

The Establishment was known to all of us in the SHSACC and featured in a wide range of anecdotes (personal and retold) that placed the building into a kind of childhood folklore. Several of us knew about this odd little building in the south east corner, which is now beyond the enterprize zone (constructed in 1981) but did not consider it to be a part of the village as it was partly screened by the trees of the south section of Doggers Covert and only accessed by a cinder path at Setchell’s Copse.

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A map showing the position of, and access to ‘The Establishment’

A few of our older residents recall that the building was originally a temporary structure – a low barn one said, not out of keeping with the kind of buildings you might find on a farm in this area. This was around 1931 or 32 – just before the war. The current structure was built during the early days of the war and it was assumed to be connected with the Ministry of Defence, although there was no signage or public information, people appeared to accept that was most likely.

Very few people were seen entering of leaving and nobody from there came to the village, not even for a pint of milk. We suppose that it was around this time the building became known as “The Establishment” and there was some suspicion about what was going on there. During the war years, the site was surrounded by barbed wire, which sounds quite drastic, but we saw a lot of barbed wire during that time, so it didn’t seem too unusual at the time.

Soddenham played its part during the war.
Soddenham played its part during the war.

A few older residents were strangely reluctant to talk about the establishment and considered the place ‘best left forgotten.’ Children growing up during the war were more willing to share their stories, but none had any clear idea about what the place was for. My own recollections were of being told not to go near because the army had had laid mines in the woods, and my mother telling me that they kept German spies there – both tales designed to give a young impressionable lad both a shiver of excitement and a severe case of the heebie-jeebies! I never went there myself – I was too frightened that my mother would find out rather than any fear of Germans!

Bernie Tooley told us about a game of dare that he played with his brother Toby and Terry Mulgrew back in the late 1970’s that involved snaking under the fence (the barbed wire had long been replaced with a standard chain-link), darting across the concrete apron and crouch beneath the windows. Once breath had been regained and courage had been mustered, the real dare was to either a) stand up and look through the window for a count of five, or b) rap on the window with a coin and then leg it. Needless to say that option b) was the only one ever taken – after all, we didn’t want to get caught! Bernie remembers that he was told that it was where the Government did experiments on German spies and that many were still held captive there, driven mad by the experiments. No seven or eight year old wants to end up in the clutches of an angry, disfigured German! Toby laughed hard at this recollection “I don’t know why we thought they would be disfigured. We had good imaginations in those days!”

This game is also recalled by others of the same era, sometimes with slightly different dares, but of a similar type. Baz Tatley and Dennis Drewery both had memories of getting up to the windows before losing their nerve and high-tailing back to the derision of their friends! Mr. Pickard, (whose photographs have inspired this post and featured elsewhere on this site) is a former resident and a regular commenter on these pages who also remembers these boyhood rites of passage but admits that he did not having taken part himself.

The building was abandoned (in the mid 1990’s?) and fell into a state of disrepair, slowly being reclaimed by Doggers Covert and now out of sight behind the enterprize zone, largely forgotten.

This story may well be interesting to some, but it also prompted a more physical investigation. In the next installment you will read about the modern dare that some of the SHSACC undertook, some ‘urban exploring’ and some more unanswered questions!

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