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The Devon dune history lessons I didn’t get at school

By Bev Phillips

I have always found that there is something truly satisfying about holding an old book or report in my hands. Is it a preservation of history itself? Or nostalgia? A small snippet into life from another time, a tale to tell from that point in history.

I write this as I have recently had the pleasure of meeting a gentleman named Julian Venner. Julian is the son of James Venner, who I discovered to have been the first Nature Conservancy Council (now English Nature) Warden of Braunton Burrows from 1969-79.

Julian contacted me after reading about the Dynamic Dunescapes project in The National Trust newsletter and I am so pleased that he did.

Braunton Burrows. Image: Matt Pitts
Braunton Burrows. Image: Matt Pitts

When I received Julian’s email, I had no idea how fascinating I would find it to be. Full of memories and uncovering information about this precious site that is so special for many people. I have since had the pleasure of meeting with Julian (socially distanced of course) and listened fully immersed as he depicted his memories regarding the burrows.

I particularly liked this one…

‘In 1969 we as a family moved from Cornwall to Braunton, where my Father James Venner, had secured a job as the first Nature Conservancy Council Warden of Braunton Burrows. He remained the warden for ten years until he was promoted to Chief Warden.

I was 6 years old at the time and over the next ten years many abiding memories remain.

The first concerned the aftermath of the American Forces, who most people will know used Braunton Burrows as one of two beaches to practice D-Day landings. What a lot of people don’t know is that the Americans left behind, buried in the dunes, a considerable quantity of armour and munitions. As a result of this when particularly high tides and strong winds combined often lethal ordinance would be exposed and shift towards the sea.

In those days if the ordinance was below the high water mark it was the Royal Navy’s responsibility and if above the Army.

One year following a particularly high tide a number of lethal tank traps were exposed. My Father, greatly concerned about the risk to bathers, couldn’t get either sides of the military to take responsibility. In the end and in despair he contacted the local MP Jeremy Thorpe. I can remember him turning up at Saunton Sands car park wearing his trilby hat and crombie coat. He very quickly got the issue sorted and my Father couldn’t speak to highly of him.’

Meadow brown butterfly on Yorkshire fog grass. Image: National Trust Images, Rob Coleman
Meadow brown butterfly on Yorkshire fog grass. Image: National Trust Images, Rob Coleman

During my visit Julian presented me with a document, the document looked old and had been written on a typewriter. Graphs within it were carefully hand drawn and the diagrams hand sketched. The document was an original report created in 1977 detailing the then very innovative management of removing invasive sea buckthorn from Braunton Burrows. The report was framed around James’s success in almost eradicating the extensive surge of sea buckthorn that had begun to dominate over the burrows.

Results included a cover of European marram grass (Ammophila arenaria), Creeping willow (Salix repens), early colonises such as Hoary ragwort (Senecio erucifolius), Wooly thistle (Cirsium eriophorum), Mouseear chickweed (Cerastium holosteoides) and Yorkshire fog grass (Holcu lanatus).

It is incredible to think that 45 years ago James was identifying the science and engineering that is still used today to eradicate certain invasive species such as sea buckthorn. At Braunton Burrows there is a beautiful pond created and named ‘Venner’s pond’ after James Venner that is definitely worth a look.

Exploring James’s report reminds me that people have had an enduring connection with Sand Dunes for generations. Many people from different eras have valued Sand Dunes; some like James have given not just their time and energy to preserve them but years of dedication and passion.

My experience with Julian has made me realise more than ever that sand dunes and sites such as Braunton Burrows are not just magical places for us right now, they are highly interpretive museums – full of memories, stories, passion and reminiscence. Places that have shaped entire families and communities and continue to be essential for the survival of not just the rare and wonderful species that call sand dunes their home but to the many people that rely on dunes for their economy, health and wealth fare.

If you don’t believe me, go and visit a sand dune. They really are worth it.

Find out more about our work at Braunton Burrows here.
Bev - Devon

About the author

Bev Phillips
National Trust Devon

Recently trading West Wales for north Devon, I have over 10 years’ experience volunteering and working for non-profit conservation charities in terrestrial and marine environments, have a BSc Hons in Wildlife Conservation and am passionate about connecting people with their natural environments. Outside of work, I’m a keen climber, surfer and diver and can often be found swinging from an aerial trapeze or exploring the outdoors with my dogs.