Coleshill in Oxfordshire is a village with a secret underground history. A couple of weeks ago we joined a queue of visitors standing beside a hole in a wall to find out more.
Let’s rewind back to World War II. Following the rapid advance of the German army through France, Winston Churchill decided to create a secret army to be the last line of defence in the event of a ground invasion. These Auxiliary Units were trained at Coleshill House and were responsible for carrying out sabotage acts, such as blowing up bridges, if Hitler invaded.
The units of 4-8 men operated out of hidden underground bunkers, most of which were destroyed at the end of the war. There is still an original bunker on the Coleshill estate but it’s in a fragile condition so a replica has been recreated. It’s open to visitors several times per year and we’d come to learn more about a little known aspect of the war.
After a short introduction by the guide our group walked a few paces into the wood to the bunker entrance. This would have been completely hidden during the war but for safety reasons we followed a well trodden path to the entrance. Yet once you step on down the ladder you really are transported back in time.
The bunker is similar to an underground Nissan hut. It consists of a main room which is about 15ft long with bunk beds and a table, a basic toilet, a small food preparation area and an ammunition store. Our group stood in the dimly lit room whilst the guide told us all about the life of the men stationed in the bunker. Operating in complete secrecy the Auxiliers learnt how to set booby traps, use explosives and communicate via dead letter drops.
At the end we crawled out through a tunnel to exit the bunker. Fortunately for us there was a carpet on the floor so we didn’t get muddy; sometimes I’m happy not to go for the full authentic experience!
Coleshill House itself burnt down in the 1950s. The secret existence of the Auxiliary Units only became general public knowledge in the 1990s. In a similar way to the story of the code breaking operations at Bletchley Park I’m sure that one day Hollywood will come knocking. It really is a fascinating story, and we all learnt loads.
Away from the bunker, the estate and part of the village, is managed by the National Trust. You can pick up a leaflet locally which shows the other attractions and details a couple of walks. Our visit coincided with the opening of Coleshill Mill so we headed over once we’d finished at the bunker.
Coleshill Mill is a water powered grain mill. We were mesmerised by the turning water wheel for a while before looking round inside. The mill contains two floors, with volunteers on hand to explain the workings of the different wheels. The kids enjoyed watching the flour pouring into a sack on the ground floor (and onto surrounding cobwebs) but the detailed explanation of the mill operation went a little over our heads.
My daughter was much more interested in milling some grain outside to make flour. This seemed a popular activity with all ages; I had a sneaky go too when all the kids had disappeared!
We finished off with a drink in the community run village shop and cafe. It had been an educational afternoon out for all of us; if you live relatively close by I’d definitely recommend a visit during one of the future bunker open days.
- The Coleshill water mill and Operational Base have limited opening dates and times, check the National Trust website for details. Admission to the estate and bunker is free. The water mill is free to NT members, non members pay £8.75 for a family ticket.
- Access to the bunker is via a step ladder. The bunker is dark and the guide recounts what life would have been like in some detail (i.e. realities of war) so it could be a little scary for some younger children. I’d personally suggest the bunker is best suited to 5+ years although there were pre-schoolers in our group.
- The mill was open to all ages but with working machinery and deep water you’ll need to keep a close eye on your kids.
- You can read lots more about Coleshill House and the Auxiliary Units on the British Resistance Archive website.