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Page last updated at 23:09 GMT, Monday, 20 October 2008 00:09 UK

Little Poland in the British countryside

Old camp
Ilford Park Camp (Pictures by Emma Lynch)

By Anna Browning
BBC News

The recent influx of Poles to Britain is not the first - after the World War II thousands fled communist rule to seek sanctuary in the UK. Some ended up at a remote resettlement camp in Devon and never left.

Sandwiched between a golf course and the A38, Ilford Park is a slice of eastern Europe in the heart of the West Country. Built 60 years ago, at its peak the site was home to 600 exiled Polish people. No wonder then that to nearby locals it became known simply as Little Poland.

Through the decades as Poland's boundaries were redrawn, communism rose and collapsed and a democratic Poland joined the European Union, Ilford Park's residents stayed put.

Elderly resident
Around 90 people, most aged over 85, live on the site

The camp, near Newton Abbot, opened in September 1948 - one of 45 hostels across Britain set up to house the 200,000 exiled Poles who had fought alongside the Allies.

Today, the original inhabitants have moved to a purpose-built care home on the 41-acre site (opened in 1992 and run by the Ministry of Defence), while around them the prefab buildings of the original camp lie decaying, signs warning possible trespassers of asbestos.

Even so, with a Polish chapel, a Polish shop - delicacies include chocolate-covered plums, krowki (Polish fudge), sausages and sauerkraut - and corridors named after Polish towns and cities, the camp's unique identity lives on.

Some things, though, have changed for the better.

For the first 20 years, living conditions in the camp's breeze-block barracks were basic and inhabitants waited until 1973 for central heating.

Henry Werpachowski, 54, who today works as a carer in the home, lived in the camp until he was 15.

He remembers a central hall which "everybody had turns in cleaning" and the trials of shared living.

"We had bare walls, no plaster or anything and it was cold. There was a communal washing area and bath and you would take turns in taking a bath. You would get the Vim out and mum would scrub the bath before you got in because you would never know who'd been in before.

"And you had a little thing you used to empty as kids - down the corridor with the lid on. There were no toilet facilities in the room."

Mammoth journey

Nicknamed "Sikorski's tourists" by the Germans - after the general who negotiated an amnesty with the Soviets allowing them to leave the USSR - many of the refugees who came to Ilford had fled thousands of miles from eastern Poland (part of today's Ukraine).

It was a perilous journey which took them through Russia, Central Asia, the Middle East and Africa, before arriving in Britain.

Ilford Park: Past and present

Marta Brzozowska, 84, fled with her brother and mother after her father was imprisoned by the Russians.

"I was everywhere, Palestine, Egypt, North America, England," she says.

She attended a Polish school in Nazareth for a time, before the family made their way to Britain.

Mieszyslaw Juny, 95, left Poland for Basra, Iraq, survived injury at Tobruk in Libya and a torpedo attack in shark-infested waters near the Equator, before arriving in Liverpool. He went on to train as a pilot.

He has lived in resettlement camps since the war ended. He came to Ilford Park in 1968 and went on to become its deputy manager.

By then the camp had a ballroom and English, art and embroidery lessons were held.

"But the most important thing was the communication between Polish people and British people," he says. "We started having dances twice a week.

Resident's shop
Polish sausage, borscht, biscuits and chocolates are available in the shop

"To begin with there was one or two or three of them but eventually there were masses of them. So the whole dancing hall was half full of British people.

"But of course the music and dances were held in the Polish traditional way - although we also danced waltzes and that sort of thing.

"So this is the reason why this place was called Little Poland. Because of the tradition held by Polish people."

Work opportunities were limited for the camp's residents. However, Young's opened a fish factory on the site of today's home, making the world's first mass-produced scampi.

"Something like 40 to 50 women and men used to work in the fish factory," recalls says Mr Juny. "But of course I didn't like it very much because it was very smelly."

Enforced integration

So why did some residents remain at the hostel for so long?

According to Henry Werpachowski, his parents could not have returned to Poland.

"Mum and Dad were from eastern Poland so their land was in a state of being taken away, annexed, so they didn't have anything to go back to. All their relatives were killed and then communism came so there wasn't a homeland to go back to."

Meiszyslaw Juny
Mieszyslaw Juny survived fighting and a torpedo attack trying to reach Britain

Having said that he, his mother and sister were made to leave the camp for a Newton Abbot council house in the 1960s - a kind of enforced integration.

"But those who didn't have children, or were old or disabled could stay," he remembers.

Mieszyslaw Juny believes it was not easy for residents to find homes or work at the time.

"Don't forget that it was the end of the war, the soldiers came back, they wanted to get married and have their families so it was very difficult," he says. "There are people who've not moved from here. But these are the people who are disabled or old."

Most at the home are aware its days are numbered. Only Polish WWII veterans and their spouses are entitled to stay, and they are gradually dying out.

Their days are spent making intricate embroidery, singing traditional Polish songs and dancing Polish dances. Their Catholic faith also features highly, with a resident priest who takes services in the chapel.

It is the old Poland, the Poland they left behind, and says Mr Juny - who has never returned to his homeland - it comforts them.

"In Poland they never had any factory-made food - they always had homemade food - so the menu here will say it's Polish homemade vegetable soup.

"Very often it's not Polish-made, it's not homemade, but the title itself keeps them going."

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