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 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

Coleshill bunker

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.

Coleshill Mill

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.
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The great fire of London walk

Both of my kids enjoyed learning about the great fire of London at school. We visited some of the places below when the kids were younger but as they were both eager to revisit the Monument I devised a themed ‘Great fire of London’ day.

Museum of London

We started with a visit to the Museum of London to see their Plague and Fire gallery. The best place to begin is by watching the 6 minute video which gives an overview of the fire and a day by day account from some of the eye witnesses. You might also like to pick up the War, Plague and Fire family activity sheet from reception (or download in advance from their website).

Afterwards take a walk around the gallery and see some of the objects relating to the fire. Our favourites were smoke blackened tiles unearthed in a cellar in Pudding Lane back in the 1970s. You can also try on a fire fighters leather helmet and compare it with our modern day equivalent.

St Paul’s cathedral

St Paul's cathedral
St Paul’s cathedral

After leaving the museum we walked to the Monument past St Paul’s cathedral. The previous cathedral, known as Old St Paul’s, was one of the casualties of the fire. Many people had put their belongings into the crypt, believing they’d be safe from the fire but sadly it was not to be and the cathedral burnt. The current cathedral was designed by Sir Christopher Wren and rebuilt after the fire once attempts to restore Old St Paul’s were stopped.

We’ve visited St Paul’s Cathedral before so didn’t go in this time but if you’ve never been it’s worth it for the climb up to the Golden Gallery. It’s not cheap but you can get slightly reduced prices by buying tickets online.

Monument to the Great Fire of London

Monument to the Great Fire of London
Monument to the Great Fire of London

On to the Monument, which was designed by Wren and his colleague Dr Hooke, as a memorial to the Great Fire. This stone column is 61.5 metres high which is the exact distance from its location to the start of the fire.  It’s fun to climb the 311 steps to the top and take in the view over London although you may need to queue for a while to get in.

View from the Monument
View from the Monument

The view had changed significantly since I last climbed the Monument as the new Walkie Talkie skyscraper now dominates the area! You can always pretend it’s not there and look out to the Thames and Tower Bridge instead. There is wire fencing all around the viewing area which can make it a little tricky to take photographs (hence no photo of the Walkie Talkie) but at least you’re safe.

Once you’ve squeezed back down the stairs you can pick up  a free certificate to show you’ve climbed the Monument.

Certificates from the Monument
Certificates from the Monument

Pudding Lane

Just down the road from the Monument is Pudding Lane, the source of the great fire. The only reminder nowadays is a small plaque on one of the buildings. The road itself is nothing special, I think a new bakery would be a great addition!

Pudding Lane
Pudding Lane

All Hallows by the Tower

All Hallows by the Tower is the oldest church in London. It’s location next to the Tower of London means that it received plenty of beheaded bodies from the executions.

It’s also the church where Samuel Pepys climbed the tower to view the progress of the great fire. The church survived thanks to surrounding buildings being demolished to create firebreaks. It didn’t fare so well in the second world war though and in the crypt you can see lead which melted from the roof during the bombings. In the under croft you can also find an excavated Roman pavement, dating from the second century.

We finished our tour with a quick trip to Borough Market. This has a tenuous link of existing at the same time as the great fire, but we only really visited for its yummy food!

More info:

  • The Museum of London is free although a donation is appreciated. The museum is open daily from 10am-6pm. It’s a short walk from either Barbican or St Paul’s underground stations.
  • The Monument costs £4 for adults, £2 for children. The stairs are the only way to get up and the staircase is pretty narrow, as is the viewing platform. It can be a bit of a squeeze when trying to pass people. I wouldn’t personally recommend it if you have pre-school children but we did see a few being carried up.
  • All Hallows by the Tower is free to enter. It’s open 7 days a week except during services. The nearest tube station is Tower Hill.
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