Wartime secrets of Coleshill village, Oxfordshire

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 stepladder down to the Operational Base at Coleshill

The stepladder down to the Operational Base at Coleshill

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.

The exit from Coleshill Operational Base

The exit from Coleshill Operational Base

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.

Coleshill water mill

Coleshill water mill

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.

Making flour at Coleshill mill

Making flour at Coleshill mill

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.

More info:

  • 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.

Oxford Jericho and canal treasure trail review

Oxford is a great city to visit but it’s good to escape the tourists and head to less well known areas. Whilst in Blackwell’s Bookshop recently I discovered a Treasure Trail covering Jericho and Oxford Canal and knew it would be the perfect opportunity to discover a different part of the city.

If you’ve never done a Treasure Trail before the aim is to find the location of treasure by following directions and solving clues. Each trail contains around 20 clues and involves 2-3 miles of walking. The clues are relatively easy to solve and are suitable for primary school kids; most involve hunting out signs or carrying out simple sums. At the end you should be left with one answer which you can text to a central number. If correct your entry is added into a yearly prize draw to win £1000!

Worcester College, Oxford

Worcester College, Oxford

Our trail started in Worcester St car park in central Oxford. This part of town is currently full of roadworks, buses and tourists so it was a relief to get past the first couple of clues and into a slightly quieter area.

St Giles war memorial. Oxford

St Giles war memorial. Oxford

We stopped to look at the war memorial and solve a clue. The memorial has no names but is dedicated to soldiers from Oxford who lost their lives in the First and Second World Wars. Nearby we found a sign indicating the location of a Big Game Museum which housed hunting trophies back in the early 1900s. I need to be careful not to give away any clue answers here!

The kids loved this cat!

The kids loved this cat!

The trail then led us through Jericho. Nowadays this area is a desirable place to live, full of character with lots of cafés and independent shops. My kids discovered a cat snoozing in a shop window and were desperate to go in and stroke it, a great sales tactic!

Back in the 1800s Jericho was slum central when open sewers and poor drainage resulted in cholera and typhoid outbreaks. In the 1950s the area was notorious as a red light district, and more recently it was the scene of fictional murders in Morse and Lewis.

St Barnabas Church, Oxford

St Barnabas Church, Oxford

The Venetian style campanile of St Barnabas dominates the area and looks a little out of place (albeit in a nice way). There are plans to develop the area around the church and in the nearby Castle Mill boatyard; these have been subject to much controversy over the last few years.

St Sepulchre's Cemetery, Oxford

St Sepulchre’s Cemetery, Oxford

We’d have never found St Sepulchre’s Cemetery without the trail. Situated down a rubbish filled alley next to a convenience store it’s not a place you’d immediately rush to visit but once you pass through the iron gates it’s as if you’ve stepped back in time. The cemetery closed to new burials in 1945 and had become overgrown and unloved until a group of volunteers took charge and helped restore its beauty. Nowadays it’s a wildlife haven and peaceful corner of the city.

Oxford canal

Oxford canal

The last part of the trail took us along Oxford Canal back into the city centre. The 78 mile canal links Oxford to Coventry and was once an important transport link but nowadays is primarily used by pleasure boaters. The canal path was busy with locals, dog walkers and the occasional tourist and took us right back into central Oxford.

Bridge 243, Oxford Canal

Bridge 243, Oxford Canal

We’d managed to solve almost all of the clues although one had got the better of us. Nethertheless it was a great way to see a different side to a city that I thought I knew well.

More info:

  • Treasure Trails are available for most locations in the UK, check out the Treasure Trail website for a searchable map of locations.
  • Trails are available from the website or they can sometimes be found in local shops and Tourist Information Centres.
  • Both the printed and download version cost £6.99 which is a little strange as you’d assume an online version would be cheaper.

A day in Le Puy-en-Velay, Haute-Loire, France

It has taken a while to write but this is my final post about our holiday in the Haute-Loire region of central France. I’ve already reviewed our CosyCamp lodgings and written a round up of Things to do in the Haute-Loire but felt the town of Le Puy deserved a post of its own.

View from Rocher Saint-Michel d’Aiguilhe

View from Rocher Saint-Michel d’Aiguilhe

Le Puy-en-Velay is the most popular tourist destination in the Haute-Loire; it’s enjoyably busy rather than overrun with visitors. The town is famous for lace, Le Puy lentils and its rather unique geography. Situated in a caldera the main tourist sites sit atop volcanic plugs and tower over the surrounding streets. So what did we see?

Le Puy-en-Velay market

We visited on Saturday which is market day. The produce stalls were full of cheeses to sample, giant bulbs of garlic, weird and wonderful mushrooms as well as fresh fruit and vegetables. There was even a stall selling live rabbits and chickens. I assumed these were for the pot but a young girl appeared to be buying one as a pet so perhaps not.

Le Puy-en-Velay market

Le Puy-en-Velay market

You can guess which stall was my daughter’s favourite though……

The best thing about Le Puy market!

The best thing about Le Puy market!

Cathédrale Notre Dame du Puy

After the market we tackled our first steps of the day and walked up to the Roman Catholic cathedral. Le Puy is the starting point for the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compestela and pilgrims gather at the cathedral each morning to be blessed.

Steps to the Cathédrale Notre Dame du Puy

Steps to the Cathédrale Notre Dame du Puy

The striped facade makes for an impressive entrance but I found the inside pretty austere.

Cathedral of Notre-Dame, Le Puy-en-Velay

Cathedral of Notre-Dame, Le Puy-en-Velay

Statue of Notre-Dame de France

From the cathedral it’s a 10 minute walk, up more steps, to the statue of Notre-Dame de France. This pink statue has an impressive history; it was built from melted down cannons seized during the Siege of Sevastapol.

Statue Notre-Dame de France, Le Puy-en-Velay

Statue Notre-Dame de France, Le Puy-en-Velay

You can walk up a spiral staircase inside the statue and peek out through the top. The final part is up a narrow ladder. Be prepared to queue as only one person can go up and down at a time.

View from Statue Notre-Dame de France

View from Statue Notre-Dame de France

Even if you don’t fancy climbing inside the statue there are impressive views from the surrounding grounds. You can look down over the terracotta rooftops and across to the cathedral.

Steps down from statue of Notre-Dame, Le Puy

Steps down from statue of Notre-Dame, Le Puy

Rocher et chapelle Saint-Michel D’Aiguilhe

Our final visit of the day was to the chapel of St Michel. This was built over 1000 years ago when men thought it was possible to get closer to gods by putting places of worship on top of rocks. For modern day visitors this means yet more steps, 268 to be exact, which wind up around the rock.

Chapelle Saint-Michel, Le Puy-en-Velay

Chapelle Saint-Michel, Le Puy-en-Velay

My son decided he’d had enough walking at this point, fortunately there are several benches to sit and rest on as you climb the rock.

Rest stop in Le Puy

Rest stop in Le Puy

It’s definitely worth making the effort as there are yet more great views and an atmospheric chapel to explore on the summit. Inside we found stone arches, ceilings adorned with frescoes and stained glass windows.

Inside the Chapelle Saint-Michel D'Aiguilhe

Inside the Chapelle Saint-Michel D’Aiguilhe

If you have walking difficulties or young children you’ll find it hard to negotiate all the steps. An alternative option is to make use of Le Petit Train, a tourist train which takes you on a 45 minute circuit of the major sights.

As we headed back into town, past the tourist lace shops, we came across a wedding party in the Place du Clauzel. There were some impressive ‘Just Married’ decorations on the back of the wedding car.

Just married

Just married

We had a great day out in Le Puy and definitely recommend a visit, just remember to wear a good pair of walking shoes!

More info:

  • It’s relatively easy to find your way around the main attractions but it’s worth picking up a free map from the tourist office. Alternatively you can download one here.
  • We drove to Le Puy from our campsite. We found a parking spot pretty easily in the Place du Breuil; pay at the ticket machine when you leave.
  • The Cathédrale Notre Dame du Puy is open daily and free to visitors.
  • You can see the statue of Notre-Dame de France from many places across town but if you wish to visit there’s a charge of 4 euros for adults, 2 euros for children. It’s open from mid-February to mid-November.
  • Adult entrance to Rocher Saint-Michel D’Aiguilhe costs 3.50 euros, children aged between 6-18 years pay 2 euros. It’s open from February-mid November; check the website for opening hours as these vary according to season.

Family days out in October 2014

October is one of my favourite months. I love the changing of the season with its misty mornings and colourful leaves. And of course there’s a half term holiday too! If you’re looking for things to do in October or over the half-term break I hope you’ll find inspiration in the list below.

autumnleaves

1. Celebrate Science, Durham

From Tuesday 28 October to Thursday 30 October you can ‘Celebrate Science’ in Durham. Activities include glassblowing, making electricity from fruit and training a robot. The events are free and take place across Durham University visitor attractions. Click here for the programme.

2. Fungi foray, nationwide

October is a great month for fungi spotting; you’d be amazed at just how many varieties there are. To get you started there’s a family fungi foray at Moors Valley Country Park, Hampshire on Sunday 12 October (booking essential). You could also check out the listings for your area on the Wildlife Trust website, there’s sure to be a family oriented event near you.

3. The Big Draw, nationwide

The world’s largest drawing festival runs throughout the month of October. Galleries and museums across the UK offer drawing events which are generally free and suitable for all ages and abilities. There’s no specific theme, so you might be involved in anything from drawing a poppy to creating a large community artwork. A complete listing is available from the Big Draw website.

4. World conker championships, Northamptonshire

Fancy yourself as a conker champion? The world conker championships are happening near Oundle on Sunday 12 October; register here if you’d like to take part. Alternatively head along as a spectator (family ticket £10) and enjoy music, dance and craft stalls. There will also be a display highlighting the role played by conkers in the First World War. (If you’re as intrigued by this as I was, find out more on the English Heritage site).

5. National Apple day, nationwide

Apple day events happen throughout October and celebrate all things apple related. This usually means apple bobbing, juice pressing, themed arts and crafts and apple testing. It’s a great opportunity to visit your local orchard and find out more about this humble fruit. Many National Trust properties are holding apple related activities, you can also search for other events near you on the Orchard Network site.

6. Diwali, Leicester and London

Diwali, the festival of lights, is observed by Hindus, Jains and Sikhs and celebrates the victory of light over darkness. Leicester holds one of the biggest events outside of India and includes a lights switch on and fireworks display on Sunday 12 October, with a further fireworks display and cultural entertainment on Diwali Day, Thursday 23 October. You’ll also find Diwali celebrations in Trafalgar Square, London on Sunday 12 October with a street bazaar, traditional food and Asian music and dance.

7. Halloween events, nationwide

Not everyone is keen on Halloween but many of the half term events focus on pumpkins, witches and spooky trails. English Heritage has a great selection of half term activities, including ghost tours at Bolsover and Kenilworth castles and a medieval spooky fun week at Whitby Abbey.

8. Autumn leaf colour, nationwide

The shortening days of autumn cause leaves to turn bright red, orange and gold. Westonbirt Arboretum is probably the best known place in the UK for autumn colours but it does get incredibly busy. In past years we’ve enjoyed the leaf colours at Batsford Arboretum, Gloucs and Harcourt Arboretum near Oxford. Alternatively just head to your local wood to see autumn arrive.

9. Go Wild in Autumn, National Museum of Rural Life, East Kilbride

You’re invited to ‘Go Wild’ from 11-19 October at the National Museum of Rural Life. Visit the farming museum and then make a mini scarecrow, build a den or make an egg carton nose. A family ticket to the museum is £19 and includes all activities. Further details on the website.

10. Bonfire season, Sussex

Whereas the rest of the UK restricts its bonfire celebrations to 5 November the Sussex bonfire season runs from September to November. Held in different towns throughout the season these events usually include torchlit processions, fireworks and a bonfire complete with effigy. Some, such as the Seaford bonfire on Saturday 18 October and Littlehampton bonfire on Saturday 25 October, advertise as being suited to families. If you have young children you’ll want to avoid the livelier events such as the one in Lewes which gets very crowded. Further details here.

I hope this list has given you ideas for days out in October. If you have any further suggestions do add a comment below.