Geoffrey Wellum remembers how country walks helped him to recover from the horrors of war

The following is a piece that appeared in November's issue of Country Walking magazine...


Within ten-and-a-half months of leaving the cloistered existence of boarding school, I found myself in a front line operational fighter squadron flying Spitfires, in time for what is now known and has gone down in history, as the Battle of Britain.

Never-to-be-forgotten readiness at first light, the tranquillity and peace of the dawn. Life at a low ebb and the total resignation of another day of mortal combat in the skies over the green fields of Kent. Oh God, another dawn. The sky clear of cloud, another fine day and a heavy dew last night, noticed as it collects on your flying boots as you carry your parachute to your waiting Spitfire. Returning to the dispersal hut to sit down and wait for the call to take off and intercept. �God, just give me this day, please give me this day�. Sit, wait and try to think of pleasant things.

The peaceful England of the 1920s and �30s. Walking with my cousin through the Surrey countryside on a fine sunny morning, complete with jam-jars and fishing nets down to the River Wey to catch minnows and crayfish.

I would take the path over the field and carry on through the now disused sand pits to the narrow road that runs beside the railway, then over the tall iron bridge that crosses the line. Downwards, using the sandy path through the pine woods with that wonderful aroma that pine trees give and so on to the old mill house and pond that is all part of the River Wey and where the cows interrupt their grazing to wander into the water and drink their fill. Locked in my memory forever the clean and flowing little river rippling away to itself with streaming weed, swaying reeds and tiny whirlpools reflecting the morning sunlight, the air crisp and clear. Sometimes the occasional flash of a darting kingfisher and the plop of a rising trout after mayfly.

Sitting now in dispersal I realise how perfect it all was, walking the banks of the Wey to finally arrive at our favourite spot by the crumbling walls of an ancient sluice gate, there to fish away to our great content, happy and at peace with ourselves under a canopy of a sky of cloudless blue, the summer sun warm on our backs � why war?

Such thoughts helped in accepting the inevitable tensions that build up within, whilst waiting for the phone to ring, a call that ordered the squadron into the air to fly and fight and possibly die. Those thoughts also brought back memories of walking the cliffs of Cornwall, from Mousehole to Lamorna as a 16-year-old with my father who allowed me to sample my first pint of bitter at The Lamorna Inn.

Up the cliff path from just behind the harbour at Mousehole which continued through fields of grazing cattle. Follow the path through a couple of farms, one of which also had huge pigs lying in the sun �making bacon�. Blue calm seas glittering and murmuring away to our left as we walked, taking in magnificent scenery with the mind at rest and thinking to myself: �If God made all this, this is where we should be giving thanks, not in some man-made stone building. Just simply a big thank you�. The whole atmosphere reminded me of H V Morton who wrote: �And I took a vow to go through the lanes of England, through the little thatched villages of England and to lean over an English bridge and lie on English grass gazing at an English sky�.

A mile or so past the farms the path begins to descend down to the small valley that leads to Lamorna Cove itself, past the old water mill with its millpond full of brown trout and on to the timely inn waiting to refresh the walker. Having done so, we carry on down the narrow road to the cove itself with its tiny harbour wall at the end of which one can observe, through crystal-clear water, small young pollack pursuing their busy hunt for food.

I ponder quietly on whether I could have got through the stress and traumas of those early war years, without such pre-war memories. I survived � just. During those years there was little chance of walking through the countryside other than a quiet evening stroll round the airfield at Great Samford in rural Essex after we had been stood down for the day. Somehow it just wasn�t the same.

The Battle of Britain over and Nazi Germany denied its aim for the first time, the war continued with little or no let up. Early in 1941 the order of the day was to go over to the offensive, to take the war to the Germans, with fighter sweeps and bomber escorts over Northern France in daylight. Over the spring and summer months we got to know the whole area well, with penetrations to places like St Omer, Bethune, Lille, Lens and a long way over the sea to Flushing. The majority of these operations ended in combat a very long way from home. Losses continued on a regular basis.

It was also the task of fighter squadrons to provide air cover for convoys proceeding up the east coast. These patrols were far less stressful as far as I was concerned.

One clear fine day I saw in the distance the lighthouse that stands in the middle of the town of Southwold, a seaside holiday resort. It was here as a young boy I used to spend happy summer holidays and where I spent the last Christmas before the war.

Droning to and fro over the convoy I recalled the winter day I walked along the beach from Dunwich to Southwold via pretty Walberswick. A typical dull grey winters� day on the east coast with snow flurries on the wind. The sea on my right was the colour of sand and the white crests of the waves as they tumbled ashore stood out in marked contrast against the leaden lowering overcast sky.

It would have made a wonderful painting for a maritime artist. On my left as I walked, over a mound of shingle and sea grass, a salt marsh with dykes stretched for a mile or so inland. Normally full of birdlife, a watchers� paradise, on this dull day nothing seemed to be stirring.

Walking along the top of the banking with the sea on one side and marsh on the other, there was not another soul in sight. The world was mine. I am aware of what an important part of my life it is walking along a seashore appreciating the movement, the ever-changing colours, the loneliness and wonderful feeling of total isolation; and so onwards to Walberswick and The Bell Inn.

Having sampled half a pint of bitter during my summer holiday in Cornwall I saw no reason not to do so again and indeed it would be a relief to get out of the wind for a while. A large log fire gave the small bar a cosy warm atmosphere and so I tarried awhile to my great content.

Taking the chain ferry over the River Blythe, all that now remains is to walk along the shore to Southwold itself, skirting the old wharf where coasters used to tie up, and two piers, one either side of the Blythe where it enters the sea. Just before I get to the wooden steps that climb up the cliff face to the sailors rest room and mini museum in Southwold itself, it starts to snow in earnest. Wasting no time I climb to the top of the cliff, then on about a hundred yards past The Lord Nelson pub to the Swan Hotel by the market square where I was staying.

There is no doubt in my mind that recollections of those peaceful, happy pre-war days greatly helped in getting me through the trauma of those early war years flying as an operational fighter pilot.

Two days after my twenty-first birthday I led a flight of eight Spitfires off the deck of an aircraft carrier on the long three-hour flight to Malta.

It was at the height of the siege and emergency rationing. Aviation fuel had almost run out and even operational flying was restricted to 20,000ft. Together with the dust and heat every sortie was very demanding. I was at the end of my second tour on operators before even going to Malta and that may have had something to do with the breakdown of my health with acute sinusitis. An operation was followed by a week in hospital and my return to England where I was promptly given a month�s leave. I felt totally drained and destroyed by the war.

Long ramblings in Epping Forest and sometimes a quiet couple of hours fishing in Highams Park Lake, with few people about, helped a young body recuperate.

On leaving the Royal Air Force after the war I found that I was just not able either to settle down to serving in peacetime or to civilian life. Only the tranquillity of long walks into the depths of Epping Forest seemed to give me any peace of mind. I began to accept that so many of my friends and fellow fighter pilots had paid the extreme sacrifice. One day I ended up at High Beech church, a lonely but peaceful little church. Surrounded by forest I relaxed and gave thanks. Surely God was in that place. The long walk home passing The Forest Gate pub a hundred yards from my cottage enabled me to enjoy what I considered to be a well-earned pint.

With advancing years my walking now is limited. I ponder on the past and the important part walking played in my life from boyhood through to manhood. I loved the loneliness and the feeling of isolation, but then, I was only a child so perhaps that had something to do with it.