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Swalland Farm: danger UXB

Jill Gowlett on a Purbeck farm with more 'unexploded material per acre … than anywhere else in the UK'

The land is cleared by the MoD with 30 displaced Ukrainians over two years in the 1960s

Rob Vearncombe’s father, John, became a tenant of the Smedmore Estate, Kimmeridge in 1959, moving into Swalland Farm with his family. In World War 2, the area was a training camp for US troops practising for D Day; the land and farmhouse had been requisitioned, as had the old stone manor house, for the American officers. The area was chosen for its seclusion; it was easy to police and patrol.
Before long, John discovered that there had been a heavy artillery gun range here and that small-arms fire and hand-grenade training had been undertaken.
After the war nothing was done to return the farm to its previous good condition and John faced the monumental task of reclaiming the land for agricultural use and restoring the farmhouse and barns. He found hundreds of unexploded shells that needed clearance and trenches 40 feet wide by 20 feet deep were uncovered, forming valleys throughout the farmland.
At the bottom of these trenches were remains of railway tracks and a trolley to pull targets. The footings of the dry-stone walls revealed hand grenades with the pins removed and in the barns were stockpiles of ammunition and rusting guns.
The surrounding land was so littered with high explosive bombs that John was advised by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to put sandbags beneath the underbelly of his tractor. The situation was so perilous that in 1960 the MoD sent two British sergeants in charge of a team of thirty displaced Ukranians with mine detectors to clear the site.

Sage advice to would-be ramblers and the children of the local community

Although this was an appalling time for his parents, Rob found it exciting and on Fridays he would rush home from school to witness the blowing up of shells. He was allowed to climb up in the cab of the army bulldozers. There were two designated sites for these operations in hollows in the ground; the bulldozers then flattened and filled in the trenches. The images still remain fresh in his mind.
After two years the Ukranians went, but there were still about forty unusable acres; there was also the heavy blue Kimmeridge clay subsoil in which it was virtually impossible to grow crops. John had brought his prize pig herd with him in 1959, but all the pigs died within six months. There were some milking cows, but in the harsh winter of 1962 calves froze to death. Another farmer lent him a crawler tractor to get milk to Corfe Castle station. Rob’s mother started Bed and Breakfast and, somehow, the farm kept going. Also, the estate gave the family great moral support.
Farming was all that Rob ever wanted to do and in 1969 he went to Kingston Maurward College for one day a week, the rest of the time he worked on the farm. During 1971 he attended college as a full time student for nine months then felt he could advise his father on farming matters, confident that a reasonable living could be made.
In 1973, ploughing uncovered more unexploded shells. The same team of Ukranians was sent for, but now their detectors penetrated nine feet instead of the six inches of the early 1960s. Later, it was learned there was more unexploded material per acre in this quiet, beautiful corner of Purbeck than anywhere else in the UK.

Rob Vearncombe on his farm

Rob married Caroline in 1977 and, as his father’s health deteriorated, took over the business. The estate, always fair to local families, wanted Rob to continue farming; to that end, permission was given for a new farmhouse to be built. Today, Rob keeps mainly livestock. It has taken over fifty years to get to really productive soil. Yet there are still patches not suitable for arable farming, and when ploughing, Rob and his son George – who jointly manage the farm, which is a member of the Countryside Stewardship Scheme – can still make out the lines of those old wartime trenches.◗

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