Werner’s Wickhambreaux

In a brief but dazzling flash of sumptuous vermilion and aquamarine, the kingfisher was gone, darting out of sight beneath the willows which brush the cool, clear waters of the Little Stour.

Almost 60 years earlier, on a warm summer’s evening in wartime Britain, Werner Götting, a young German pilot fell from the sky when his Messerschmitt BF 109 E was shot down over Canterbury by Sergeant Bohumir Furst. a Czech Hurricane pilot from 310 Squadron, Duxford.

Just before his aircraft exploded, Unteroffizer Götting, with 1/Lehr Geschwader 2, a squadron based at Calais, parachuted to safety. The remains of his plane plummeted to earth only a few hundred yards from the kingfisher’s haunt. It was 5.35 PM on Saturday, September 7, 1940.

Extremely lucky to be alive, but with a jagged wound in his arm from exploding armour-plating, Götting was not to know – or even care – that his parachute would drop him into one of the most idyllic stretches of countryside south of London.

The Kentish village of Wickhambreaux, complete with 300 sheep, is mentioned in the Domesday Book. It is one of those villages that just peters out into open countryside, where you can follow the Little Stour, one of the last unspoilt chalk streams in the South East, for miles. At the time of my last stroll there were so many dragonflies – their exotic blue colouring echoing our lone kingfisher’s plumage – that we risked treading on half a dozen with every step.

Unlike Werner Götting’s Messerschmitt, every dragonfly seemed somehow to remain airborne in spite of this hostile trampling of walking boots. As he drifted into this autumnal Garden of England, Götting’s fall was broken by a giant cedar tree which happened to be in the rectory garden in the village of Stourmouth where the incumbent was taking tea.

“Would you like a cup ?” said the rector, having telephoned the police for assistance before rescuing the bloodied pilot – leaving his shattered aircraft to sink slowly into a dyke in a water meadow in the nearby village of Wickhambreaux. Götting accepted gratefully.

But according to David Brocklehurst, chairman of the Kent Battle of Britain Museum at Hawkhurst, near Folkestone, his parishioners were so incensed at their spiritual leader rescuing an enemy pilot that they boycotted his church service the next morning. “So the following Sunday, his sermon was about the Good Samaritan” he said.

That very water meadow, and the gorgeous Kent countryside around Wickhambreaux – long ago, a tidal estuary which, over the years, gradually silted up – has become a special haunt for the limited band of strollers, ramblers and walkers who have been fortunate enough to discover it.

I first encountered it by chance when I was at school in Canterbury, and have re-trod its enchanting pathways ever since, albeit with long gaps. Then, by chance, as a young TV reporter I found myself returning with a film crew to record a poignant scene.

The trustees of the museum, which has over the years has salvaged the wreckage of more than 600 World War 2 aircraft, had located Götting’s shattered Messerschmitt and decided to raise it from its murky grave. Götting, now a schoolmaster, was located, and flew to Britain to witness the most extraordinary sight: his aircraft, or what was left of it, being tugged from the dyke where it had remained ever since that fateful day.

Almost 40 years after his narrow escape, Götting watched, almost incredulous, as the wreckage – including parts of the propeller, bomb carrier, instruments, and oxygen bottles, dripping with green slime – was salvaged and removed to the museum.

Perhaps, having overcome such an emotional spectacle, his day out in the Kent countryside gave him a better opportunity to admire the rural backwater where he had escaped with his life.

Much of the water meadow has now become a lake, flooded after the extraction of gravel. The villagers – self-confessed NIMBYs – gathered trogether to fight a “battle royal” to stop the lake moving closer to Wickhambreaux. Although the lake has changed the overall perspective of my favourite walk, it is not an unattractive development. There are now scores of swans and an assortment of cormorants, great crested grebes, coots and seagulls to keep you company as you stroll from Wickhambreaux, one of Kent’s most attractive villages along the banks of the Little Stour to Preston. The journey takes but an hour or so, and is utterly delightful.

After passing the artificial lake, the river follows dense forest for less than half a mile. The footpath eventually cuts through the trees, bringing you out into cornfields – in our case just harvested and smelling of freshly gathered sheaves. We were now looking down on the river, with a flock of nine almost motionless Little Geese staring back at us.

A further woodland walk brought us out to undulating fields of un-harvested corn, dotted with poppies, waving gently beneath a hot blue sky. In the adjoining field, a huge flock of starlings was grazing on early strawberries. Now and again a bird-scarer would send them scurrying into the air where they would sweep the horizon in a huge wave of black arrows, with never the hint of the tiniest collision, landing in the strawberry fields again – as if on a giant green aircraft carrier – in perfect unison.

Above them a kestrel soared, seemingly indifferent to both starlings and house martins, their altitudes separated as if by some unseen traffic controller. By now, in the distance we could see the beginnings of another small Kentish village: Preston. The ancient church of St Mildred’s, parts of it 900 years old, with roses rambling in its peaceful graveyard, was the first building we came to. Two lambs, evidently former sock-lambs, bleated in our direction and allowed us to pet them. It would have been intriguing to walk on towards Stourmouth and the rectory garden to discover whether the giant cedar tree where Unteroffizer Götting’s war ended was still there. We resolved to return and walk the next stretch another day. For now, it was time to retrace our steps.

Just over an hour later we were back on the banks of the almost still, shady waters of the Little Stour just by the road where we had started our walk.
“I wonder if the kingfisher’s back?” I said, sotto voce. After all, it might have been his special haunt, to be returned to when inquisitive walkers had continued on their way. We crept along and peeped over the railings. To our delight, there he was – perched motionless on a riverside shrub, eyeing up passing fish. And then he was darting off again. What a shame Werner Götting never caught a glimpse of such a wonderful flying machine during his visits. Even the squadron of faultlessly-flying starlings might have intrigued him.

© Arnie Wilson

The Kent Battle of Britain Museum, Aerodrome Road, Hawkinge, near Folkestone, Kent Tel 01303 893140