My visit to Danesfield House Hotel in England was truly a dream come true. Not only is this white chalkstone mansion the setting for my wartime novel Bird’s Eye View, it was also the location for a very special event on May 8, 2022 — the seventy-seventh anniversary of VE-Day, Victory in Europe.
My admiration for this beautiful estate began more than two decades ago, when I began researching my novel about a Canadian farm girl named Rose who joins the air force in the Second World War and is assigned to work here in this very building, as an interpreter of aerial photographs.
Nestled in the countryside an hour west of London, the mansion originally belonged to the owner of the Sunlight Soap company. During the war it was requisitioned by the Royal Air Force, renamed RAF Medmenham, and became the headquarters for photo intelligence for all the Allied forces. After the war it continued to serve as an RAF unit until 1977. Today it is a luxury boutique hotel named Danesfield House Hotel.
My visit began as we swept up the tree-lined driveway and entered through the arched opening under the clock tower. I could not help imagining the scene in my novel when my fictional heroine Rose (who lives and breathes only in my imagination) saw this place for the first time — a vivid contrast to her farmhouse back in Saskatchewan!
The hotel features fifty-five lovely rooms, many of them with bay windows overlooking the Thames River. Our room was located in the tower on the right, on the third storey.
Here’s an interior view of our gorgeous room.
During the war, these rooms were used by the photo interpreters, who studied the aerial photos taken by reconnaissance aircraft flying over the continent, searching for military installations and bomb targets. Their achievements indisputably helped the Allied forces to victory.
Read more here: Medmenham: Where the Magic Happened.
The hotel recreated one of these rooms for the event, with historical artifacts. This photo shows an aerial camera used in a reconnaissance aircraft, and the famous photo of the damage caused by the Dambusters raid.
There were stereoscopes on display, the little devices that allowed the interpreters to see the black and white photos in three dimensions.
And of course, there were photos of Constance Babington Smith, perhaps the best known interpreter and the inspiration for my novel. I wrote about her here: The Woman With the X-Ray Eyes.
By 1944 there were six hundred interpreters here from all the Allied countries, more than half of them women, plus all the support staff. Long metal buildings called “huts” were installed on the grounds, used for eating, sleeping, and administrative purposes.
Danesfield VE-Day Event
Now, back to the present . . . I was invited to take part in a special anniversary event to commemorate the hotel’s proud history. The weekend roster was filled with guest speakers.
Unlike me, the others were British military historians and authors of non-fiction books about photo interpretation. I felt very honoured to be included in their company. The lectures took place in the Great Hall, which also features prominently in my novel.
Before the event began, I was dressed in my wartime outfit and madly signing copies of Bird’s Eye View in the hotel bar, resisting the urge to fortify myself with strong drink. (My publisher once told me never to start drinking before an event, advice which I took to heart.)
Nevertheless, I was pretty darned nervous before it was my turn to address this crowd of distinguished guests, all of whom had purchased tickets to learn about the role of photo interpretation during the war.
Some of the other speakers included historian and author Taylor Downing; historian and author Helen Fry; and historian and author Michael Smith, all of whom have written wonderful non-fiction books about Allied intelligence.
I gave a very personal talk about my own family history, and how I was inspired by this beautiful mansion to write my novel.
I was thrilled to encounter one of my book fans there, named Sadie Houghton. She drove to Danesfield from her home near Oxford to attend the event. Back in 2015, I met her son Chris Hood at a book signing event in Parksville, British Columbia and he bought a copy of Bird’s Eye View and mailed it to his mother.
Sadie’s father, Thomas Henry Hayter, was a pilot with the Royal Air Force during the Second World War. He rose through the ranks and served as RAF Squadron Leader here from 1951 to 1956. His family lived in married quarters across the road, so Sadie has many memories of visiting her father and playing on the grounds while she was a child. Here we are on the lovely terrace outside, before the event got underway.
I was also very happy to see a familiar face in the crowd. My cousin Linda Selinger (our mothers were sisters) travelled all the way from Brandon, Manitoba with her husband Patrick to attend the event, along with two of their friends.
Sadly, no wartime photo interpreter was able to attend. However, a veteran who served at nearby Bletchley Park, the top secret location of the codebreakers, was there with colours flying. Betty Webb, now aged ninety-nine years, spoke about her wartime service.
One of the most poignant moments came when she talked about signing the Official Secrets Act — meaning that she could not breathe a word about what she was doing there, to anyone. “I wish I could have told my parents what I had done during the war. They died without ever knowing,” she said.
Standing with Betty in this photo is the woman who created the event, the hotel’s marketing manager Gez Beatty. The event had originally been been planned for the seventy-fifth anniversary of VE-Day back in 2020 — until covid struck, and it was cancelled.
But Gez did not give up, and managed to pull everything together again two years later. I shall be eternally grateful to her for making my Danesfield Dream Come True!
Everyone congregated for a delicious luncheon. Imagine my surprise when I saw that one of the tables was named for my book.
We ate in the stunning Versailles Suite (also called the Hall of Mirrors) — the same room where George and Amal Clooney had their wedding reception!
Here I am enjoying the food and soaking up the ambiance. (And yes, I did have a glass of wine.)
Finally, the hotel arranged a group photograph on the front steps. Here is the original photo taken of photo interpreters at RAF Medmenham.
And here is the recreated photograph. I am seated second from right, and my husband in the green shirt is standing behind me.
When the weekend event was finished and everyone had left, I took one last stroll around the grounds in the evening twilight. I felt as if I were surrounded by the ghosts of all the dedicated men and women who spent their wartime years here, working so hard to ensure the freedom we enjoy today.
Lest we forget.
* * * * *
Rest in Peace, Stocky Edwards
I have written often about this wonderful man, who was not only an accomplished flying ace in the Second World War, but a mentor and role model for everyone fortunate enough to know him. His passing on May 14, 2022 at the age of 100 years will leave the world a poorer place. My condolences to his wife of seventy years, Toni Edwards, and all the family. I gave them a copy of my book My Favourite Veterans, with their wedding photo on the front cover.
Read more here: Stocky Edwards: Flying Ace, Family Man.
* * * * *
Rest in Peace, Russell Thompson
Another treasured wartime veteran left this world for a better place on May 14, 2022, Russell Thompson of Seeley’s Bay, Ontario. He was 102 years old and according to his son Steve, last week he was planting potatoes in his garden. Russell served in the Canadian Army during the Second World War and was beloved by everyone who knew him. My condolences to his family.
Read more here: Russell Thompson: Army Veteran, Role Model.