Starling watch at RSPB Otmoor, Oxfordshire

*To see details of our November 2016 visit to watch the starling murmuration at Otmoor click here*

Have you seen a starling murmuration? A murmuration is the name given to the swooping displays made by starlings just before they come into roost. Last winter we were treated to a fabulous display at RSPB Otmoor, and as this is the perfect time of year to see them we decided it was time for a revisit.

On our previous trip to Otmoor we made a mistake and arrived way too early. It was a freezing cold day and we spent a long time standing around in frozen mud trying to keep warm. The wait was worth it though as we were treated to spectacular murmurations.

This year we set off later. It had rained all day but as we negotiated the traffic delight of Oxford’s ring road the blue skies appeared. Surely a signal.

We duly arrived at the car park, put on our wellies and started the 20 minute walk to the viewing point near the reed beds. A couple of small groups of starlings flew overhead and as we walked we were treated to the most amazing sunset.

Otmoor sunset

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Perhaps this should have been an indicator that we were a little on the late side arriving this year. Nevertheless, we joined several other bird watchers at the shelter and proceeded to wait for the starlings. And we waited.

A few minutes later a couple of the group started to walk back and we overheard that the starlings had already put on their display for the day. This was disappointing news to us, and to the people next to us who had driven for 1.5 hours to see them!

Many bird watchers have visited my blog over the last couple of weeks to find out what time the starlings roost. At the end of November it was around 3.40pm. About 10 minutes before we arrived.

Were we disappointed? A little. We hadn’t seen the starlings but we were treated to the most amazing sunset. And there’s something magical walking back through a nature reserve in the dark!

If you’re interested in other posts about local nature reserves you might also enjoy reading about moth spotting at Neptune Wood or orchid hunting at Warburg Nature Reserve. Alternatively locals and visitors alike might enjoy my post about things to do in Oxford.

More info:

  • Further details about Otmoor reserve can be found here.
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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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