Brian Woodward was five when his world was turned upside down on a train ride the length of Britain. It was a journey which would last three years and shape the rest of his life.
For many the earliest childhood memories are probably of Christmas, a birthday party or perhaps that first bike or doll.
Brian Woodward breaks the mould.
One of his first recollections is of being squeezed by his parents into an overhead luggage rack in a train compartment so he could get a good night’s sleep.
But Brian’s childhood was unlike most others.
While he was contorted into that rack, the train roared through the night to take him on a three-year adventure which would change his life.
Brian was five. It was 1942 and he had been whisked away on that journey with his mother, father and older sister June.
One moment he was watching dogfights between the RAF and the Luftwaffe over Portsmouth and sheltering from the frequent air raids, the next he was pitching up in a newly-built village of prefabs in a remote and muddy valley on the west coast of Scotland.
Welcome to Dunstaffnage.
‘It was as if we’d ended up in Brigadoon,’ says Brian referring to the musical in which two Americans on a trip to Scotland encounter a small village, not on the map, called Brigadoon. The people harbour a mysterious secret and behave as if they were living 200 years in the past.
‘We were not evacuees,’ adds Brian firmly.
What they were doing was taking part in a hush-hush mission to open a secret floating dockyard to repair warships damaged in the Battle of the Atlantic or from Arctic convoys.
‘I couldn’t believe what had happened,’ Brian remembers. ‘There I was one minute in Oakwood Road, Hilsea, surrounded by roads and streets of houses watching the battles in the sky, the next I was in the middle of nowhere surrounded by mountains and woods with not an air raid shelter in sight.’
The Woodwards were not alone. The burgeoning prefab village in the middle of nowhere would eventually swell to about 250 homes and a community of more than 500. When the war ended it would vanish.
It was named Dunstaffnage after the fairytale castle on the nearby estate, close to Oban.
Brian’s dad David, a shipwright in Portsmouth Dockyard, was one of hundreds of skilled men from the city as well as Devonport, Chatham and Rosyth who were posted to the north of Scotland to work on the ships in Admiralty Floating Dock 19.
‘Dad had disappeared a couple of years earlier,’ says Brian, now 77. ‘I was at a kind of nursery at St Francis’s Church in Northern Parade when he turned up one day and kissed me goodbye.’
Brian did not see him again until he returned shortly before moving the family out in 1942 for that train journey north. ‘I don’t think mum was happy.
‘She was very proud of her home in Oakwood Road. It had only been built in 1937 and she had to swap it for a prefab in a muddy Scottish valley.’
The Woodwards lived at 13b Harvey Road and moved to 10a when Brian’s second sister Ann, who lives at Purbrook, was born in 1944.
‘I was so lucky. What a life we had there,’ he remembers fondly. ‘You couldn’t have wished for a better place for a child to grow up. We’d go off without a worry to play in the wood below the Co-op, the only shop in the village; paddle in the bay in the summer and play on the nearby hill.
‘It was a great time. We had no worries about the war and our parents didn’t seem to worry where we were or what we were up to. The only locals were the McPhersons at Maine Farm who supplied the village with milk and eggs from a horse-drawn float.’
Every social event for the community was held in a hall called The Ship.
Brian adds: ‘As we had no church my sister Ann was christened on the stage by the vicar from Connell. She was one of the 12 children born in 1944.
‘On Friday nights the mobile cinema visited and I remember seeing Claude Rains in Phantom of the Opera. Sometimes there was a Saturday matinee for the kids with Tom Mix or Gene Autry. I also remember a newsreel of Belsen being liberated. It frightened me then and still does.’
But away from this childhood idyll, the war continued. There was a constant stream of ships arriving at the naval base to be repaired in seclusion, away from the air raids on Britain’s main dockyards.
Brian recalls the Flower-class corvette HMS Bluebell. Having been repaired at AFD 19 she sailed for the Arctic and as she prepared to guard her next convoy, was torpedoed. There was one survivor, Albert Holmes from Southampton.
‘When going to school in 1944,’ Brian recalls, ‘there were hundreds of landing craft tied up to the walls of Oban esplanade. Overnight they all disappeared and the D-Day invasion was on.’
When the war ended the Woodwards returned to Portsmouth and the other families dispersed too. The prefabs were demolished between 1958 and 1964 and replaced by a council estate.
But if you’re curious enough to look it up, you will not find it on a map. The only Dunstaffnage now is the castle. Brian says: ‘The laird did not like the idea of a council estate called Dunstaffnage so it became Dunbeg.
‘Those at the castle had none or very little knowledge that it once had a dockyard in its grounds.’
Corruption in the village hall
For three years the inhabitants of Dunstaffnage did all their shopping in the community’s only shop – a Co-op which was two prefabs knocked into one.
Brian Woodward says: ‘It was the hub of the village.
‘It was where your mother sent you to buy 5lb of potatoes with the instructions to get small ones as the large ones would be too heavy to carry.’
All social events were held in The Ship community hall including a fancy dress competition for the village children.
Brian says: ‘I don’t remember entering, but years later when I showed a newspaper cutting to my late older sister June, she said there were two reasons why I had won the “Special Prize”.
‘The first was that she had made the outfit, the second was that dad had bribed a judge.
‘When our mother found out she was so embarrassed she didn’t speak to our father for a week.
‘Well, 2s 6d was a lot of money to a little lad. I don’t mind mentioning it now and I’m not giving the money back.’
Dunstaffnage, built by Royal Marines from a nearby camp, was condemned in 1957, demolished, rebuilt by the council and renamed Dunbeg.
Brian says: ‘Eight years ago I wrote to Dunbeg School asking if they’d done any projects about how the village developed. Nothing had been done and the school secretary, who had lived there for 47 years, was unaware there had been a dockyard there.
‘When I tried to get photos of it during the war the best advice I was given was ‘‘try the Luftwaffe’’. I gave up.’
- Surviving members of the community meet each autumn and keep in touch via a Facebook page called Dunbeg-Dunstaffnage Memories.