The eerie moors of a national park have surrendered another spooky visitor attraction, in the vestigial remains of a cold war secret listening post.
Files of photographs and veterans’ memories added substance this week to a maze of hillocks and trenches which has long since vanished under grass and heather above the North Sea.
The material, collected by former servicemen with the help of the internet, reveals in detail how radar beams swept the eastern approaches from the Soviet Union after wartime service for the Royal Air Force.
Interlocking signals from the lonely hilltop of Danby Beacon, inland from Whitby, North Yorkshire, also earned a place in history by trapping the first Nazi bomber to be shot down over England.
The base’s core activities remain classified, but the Ministry of Defence has allowed the release of some material which might have raised eyebrows in the early 1950s, when Danby Beacon was on full alert. It includes an agreement to leave a solitary light on at the base for late arrivals, after supposed sightings of a headless horseman on the isolated moor, which is often blanketed in sea frets, or fog.
A former radar technician at the base, Freddie Smith, who has written a brief history, also recalled unorthodox leave when the boredom of watching for non-arriving Soviet jets began to tell. After mentioning to the commanding officer that he had a film projector at home in Wakefield, West Yorkshire, he was given three days’ leave to fetch it – and assemble what became known as the Danby Beacon Cinema.
The base was the precursor of the Fylingdales early warning station 15 miles south-east, whose three giant “golf balls” became one of the national park’s biggest attractions, after initial fury at the plan to build them in 1960. Replaced by a single pyramid in 1992, the domes were described by Sir Nikolaus Pevsner in his Buildings of Britain as “the geometry of the space age at its most alluring and frightening”.
Danby Beacon’s eight lattice-metal towers had a similar atmosphere, as photographs in the new archive show. Material also includes accounts of the first shooting-down of a Heinkel bomber in February 1940 by pilots including Peter Townsend, whose relationship with Princess Margaret caused controversy in the 1950s. Other contributors include a former adjutant at the base, storekeepers, technicians and military police.
The archive will be posted online by the North York Moors national park office, following a reconstruction of the beacon, which was part of the Armada chain in 1588. Rita Rudsdale, of the Danby Beacon trust, said: “The archive gives a fascinating insight on life at the base. It greatly increases our understanding of the site, which today is little more than grass-covered humps and bumps.”
Flight Lieutenant Mike Foster of RAF Fylingdales, which now monitors spy satellites and space debris, said the base was “proud to carry the torch on from Danby Beacon”. Staff there also support a remote radar station at Staxton Wold, a beacon site dating back to the third century, which is the last working link in the Home Chain defence system established in 1937.
• This article was amended on 29 April 2010. The original said that the first Nazi bomber to be shot down “over the United Kingdom” was trapped by Danby Beacon’s radar station. This has been corrected.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010