Our secret army at Coleshill
I started volunteering for the Trust really by accident. I had just retired from working on the railway. It is quite a shock to the system to go from working hard to doing nothing. After a few months I wandered into the National Trust office at Coleshill and asked if there was anything they wanted doing.
That is when it all started just over 14 years ago. The first job I was given was to make an itinerary of old farming implements. This was right up my alley; I used to be an IT manager before I retired. It was not long before I had created a database complete with photos of all the items, their location and what they were used for.
Having completed that, I was approached by the manager to see if I could help the Education Officer. School visits had been arranged and some help was wanted to escort them around the estate. The first visit I helped on was to go river dipping in the river Cole. It was great fun and very enjoyable.
This was the real start of volunteering. School visits extended to tours around the village and the model farm, bug hunting, organics, orienteering, in fact anything that schools wanted was catered for. During this time the mill was restored into a fully operating water mill and I was fortunate to be present the first day it was run. Fingers were crossed as well as everything else. All went well and I subsequently learned how to operate the mill. This gave us an opportunity to show the workings of the mill to not only schools but adults as well on open days.
My real interest started about 8 years ago when a local school asked the Trust to develop a program to explain what had taken place at Coleshill during WW2. One of the teachers knew a little about it and to encourage children to write stories we devised a programme explaining how a secret army was trained. The day shows them how to send messages, handle articles from the 1940s, aircraft recognition, hunting for dead letter boxes, followed by going to a guard house, the site of the old house, and going down into the original operational base (OB).
" I made replica items to go on display such as grenades, bullets, knives and explosives!"
This became very popular amongst schools and quickly took off. The original OB is over 70 years old and it was thought that increased use might damage it, so volunteers constructed a replica with a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund. It has been fully kitted out so children get a better experience of what it was like to go underground.
Last year there were about 3,000 visitors who went through it. These included a lady in her 90s who worked in the offices during the war and an Auxilier who kindly opened a new display, which we have made, called an Observation Post. This year we're hoping to develop the display even by building a secret radio site hidden in a chicken hut.