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Volunteer story: Coleshill at war

Interior of the replica WWII bunker on the Coleshill Estate, Oxfordshire
Interior of the replica WWII bunker on the Coleshill Estate | © National Trust Images/James Dobson

One of our volunteers at the Buscot and Coleshill Estates, Roger Green, was unaware of the hidden histories from the Second World War when he began here. He now leads guided walks around this once top-secret site and has developed a keen passion as an amateur historian. Find out more about both his story and the site’s hidden wartime history.

Starting out at Coleshill

I started volunteering at Coleshill around 15 years ago. I’d recently retired and found myself getting a little bored. My son lived in the village at Coleshill for a short time so I knew that it was looked after by the National Trust. I decided I’d wander in one day and ask if there was anything I could do to help out. 

My first assigned task was to create a database of all the equipment used on the model farm here, and I then moved on to helping with school visits around the village. Over the years my role gradually expanded until, one day, we received a request from a group of local schools about the role the estate played during the Second World War.

The Auxiliers

The Coleshill Estate has a top-secret history: there’s nothing else quite like it in the country. During the war it was the HQ for Auxiliary Units, where around 3,000 civilians were trained in the art of sabotage and clandestine operations. 

The original Operational Base – the bunker that was used to train these remarkable men – still exists. There was a pre-emptive resistance set up to combat the imminent threat of invasion. It’s a fascinating part of history that very few people, even the local community, know anything about.

Building an experience

A few of our local schools were searching for an activity that would encourage and inspire their pupils to write stories. Our Education Officer, Liza Dibble, devised the programme, deciding to build a replica of the original bunker.

That original is 75 years old now and suffering from natural wear and tear. We built the new one, with the help of a Heritage Lottery Fund grant, so that we could make it more accessible and give visitors a really immersive experience. As volunteers we had the opportunity to contribute ideas and we keep adding bits each year. 

Entrance to the underground WWII bunker on the Coleshill Estate, Oxfordshire
Entrance to the underground WWII bunker on the Coleshill Estate | © National Trust Images/James Dobson

The bunker took our group of volunteers a year to build, with National Trust staff pitching in to help out with the awkward bits like the concrete roof. We’ve dressed it with bunks, a wooden floor, a proper ladder, an escape tunnel and even artefacts including an imitation box of grenades.

We now have an observation post too and we’ve just added a secret radio station hidden in a chicken shed. We’re all really proud of what we’ve helped create.

Each day is different

There’s no such thing as a typical day here – it’s always a little different. We run several different types of guided walks in addition to the school visits. The kids love the activities we set up for them: they can go off codebreaking, discovering dead letter drops, learn how to move round without being heard or seen and crawling under nets. Later in the day they can go orienteering and river dipping too. 

The highlight for our older visitors is usually the bunker. We lead them through the hidden trapdoor emerging two metres below ground, past blast walls, a toilet nicknamed the thunderbox, through the galley and into the main living area. We’re then able to reveal the three-metre-long escape tunnel, through which they can crawl to complete the experience. 

I also help out running the water mill and enjoy the variety. I’m usually working alongside a couple of fellow volunteers; the team spirit and camaraderie is part of the fun.

A rewarding role

The best bit of my day is invariably the people I talk to. We’ve had children as young as two come to visit us, all the way up to one spritely 94-year-old.

I get to meet people from all over the place, the furthest from Australia: a lady writing a book about the war who wanted to see where it all happened.

'My favourite memories are of meeting those men and women who trained or worked here in wartime and listening to their stories.'

- Roger Green

With the schoolchildren it’s particularly great to see the astonishment on their faces: their eyes get wider and wider as you tell them about what happened here. We tell them the real stuff, it depends on their age – we don’t tell them too gory a tale, but their surprise and enthusiasm is always lovely.

With the older people it’s often more about learning from them. Perhaps their fathers or grandfathers were trained at Coleshill – many have interesting tales of their own. 

The WWII bunker on the Coleshill Estate, Oxfordshire
The WWII bunker on the Coleshill Estate | © National Trust Images/James Dobson

Making and receiving memories

My favourite memories are of meeting those men and women who trained or worked here in wartime and listening to their stories. They’re truly extraordinary people. They kindly came along to open both the bunker and the observation post for us.

One insisted on crawling out of the escape tunnel under his own steam, emerging with a broad grin on his face, briefly transported back in time.

Through volunteering I’ve become involved with another local group – the British Resistance Archive – doing some research for them. They’ve been kind enough to invite me to accompany them to the cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday, a really moving experience. 

I’m able to take huge satisfaction from passing on the knowledge that I’ve gained during my time here. At the end of each day I’m always tired but I’ve never been disappointed.

I can’t imagine a time when I’ll want to stop doing this – there’ll always be something new to learn.

A view of the sunrise taken through some green foliage across fields at Badbury Clump on the Buscot and Coleshill Estate in Oxfordshire

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