Summer Visit to Coleshill – 8th July 2017

Once again we had a beautiful day for our visit to Coleshill to see the site of the wartime training area for “Auxiliers”, whose function would have been to form a resistance force
in the event that the German invasion had succeeded.

We were met by Liza Dibble the NT Community Learning Officer, and given a short introduction to the estate. It is a largely agricultural area with 11 tenanted farms, three of which are organic dairies, with approximately 400 acres of woodland.

The first ideas for this unit were discussed as early as 1937 and by 1940, with Hitler threatening invasion with Operation Sealion the unit was set up. It was decided that people should be trained centrally and Coleshill was chosen as a suitable site. The house was then occupied by 2 elderly ladies and it was thought that the site could be easily concealed and kept secret while also having easy access to the rail network.

Trainees were hand-picked and known as ‘Auxiliers’. – Many were recruited from the farming and gamekeeping communities because of the skills they already possessed. Our first stop was at the guard house beside the road which still exists in its original form. This is open to the public and contains several information boards and also a recording of one of the original trainees recruited as a boy of 17 who when asked if he was ever afraid said “When you are 17
you are invincible”. The guard house was well protected by trees so would not have been visible from the air.

The Unit was commanded by Col. Mike Gubbins and many of the recruits were veterans of the First World War or too young to be called up for the Second. We saw a map of the expected lines of attack in the event of invasion, and the code name for the Defence Operation was to be “Cromwell”. Each patrol had their own base unknown to any other for security reasons. About 3000 men in total were recruited, spread over the country. By December 1944 when it became clear they would not be needed the units were stood down, with instructions to destroy their operational bases, but this was not always obeyed. They were never awarded medals or officially acknowledged.

We were given fascinating details of the equipment and instruction booklets issued to each man. Equipment included a garrotting wire and commando knife as well as a revolver and sniper rifle. They were also issued with very advanced radios, none of which now exist even at Bletchley Park. The pamphlets were given covers designed to conceal the true nature of their contents, which included instructions on self-defence, weapon handling and explosives. One booklet was entitled “Highworth Fertilizers”.

We also learned something of the original 17th century house which was destroyed by fire in 1952. A garden now marks the ground plan. The personnel involved in these units were all men, with the exception of 2 very skilled women radio operators known as “Secret Sweeties”.

The next stage of the visit involved a fairly lengthy walk through woodland to the site of the actual training base, which had been examined exhaustively by an archaeological team. This consisted of an underground bunker replicating the bases from which the men would operate. It was entered via a concealed shaft with a ladder, there was a lavatory area and a blast barrier to provide a limited protection in the event of a grenade attack. There were also the remains of bed bases which could have accommodated 8 men, and also a storage area. We entered and left via the escape tunnel which would have given access into the Ha-Ha by dislodging blocking stones. There was a ventilation shaft disguised in the form of a tree, which would also have removed smells.

We were also shown concrete bases of accommodation blocks used for the trainees who came down for long weekend sessions. And our guide pointed out a number of mysterious holes in the ground, which she said were known as “sites of indeterminate use”(ie no-one knew what they were for).

At the end of our walk back we were able to enjoy the glorious views over the fields and woodland to the White Horse in the far distance. We were also shown some very moving plaques on some of the trees commemorating men who had trained on the site and later lost their lives when they had moved on to other wartime service.

We were very much indebted to Liza for her very well-informed and enjoyable tour.

Janet Taylor

Visit to Oxford University Botanical Garden, June 2017

On the 14th June, 19 members visited the Oxford Botanic Garden for a guided tour. We were fortunate in having a beautiful sunny afternoon, and for our benefit our two guides concentrated largely on the history of the garden .

The land had been a Jewish burial ground until the Jews were expelled in 1290, and later Church hospital burials took place on the site. The Garden itself was first endowed for the sum of £5000 by the 1st Earl of Danby in 1621, and 5 acres of land were enclosed by stone walls. These were double skinned, the centre being filled with rubble. They also extend as far below ground level as above.

This was to be a physic garden for medicinal plants to support the University’s teaching, and only gardeners, dons and students were allowed access. The general public were not allowed in until 1880, and then only men were allowed for a very limited time with close supervision.

Our first stop was at the magnificent Danby Arch, designed by Nicolas Stone. It was built of Headington stone and there had originally been a large wooden door closing off the entrance, the metal tracks of which are still visible. We learned some fascinating detail about features under the Arch – the small pieces of metal protruding from the sides are of 15th C origin, and
are thought to have come from the tomb of St Frideswide, and to have supported cages holding monkeys in the 19th C.

The second phase of the garden’s development extended beyond the walled garden to the south, and was bordered by the Cherwell. The land here had to be raised considerably to prevent flooding. This is evident when you look over to the level of the playing fields on the other side of the river.

The rock gardens are situated in this area, as is the magnificent herbaceous
border along the south-facing wall.

The garden has also been used to supply much-needed food at least twice in its history, firstly during the siege of Oxford in the Civil War, and then in the ‘Dig for Victory’ movement in the Second World War.

The garden also followed popular fashion in the plants grown, particularly the pineapple which needed specially constructed beds consisting of a pit with a base of pebbles, then manure and tanning waste. The fruit could be hired out for a guinea a night if returned undamaged, otherwise they cost two guineas.

The garden also followed Chatsworth in building a pond to house the Amazon Lily. We were able to visit the pond in one of the glasshouses.

The garden itself was founded in 1632. It was the first of its kind in England. The first Superintendent was a German named Jakob Bobart, who was appointed by Henry Danvers, First Earl of Danby. He had the right to sell fruit and vegetables from the Garden, which was necessary as his pay was £40 per annum, from which he was required to stock the Garden.

In 1648 Bobart published a Catalogue in alphabetical order of 1600 plants in his care.

Another important figure in the early history of the garden was Robert Morison. After the Restoration, Morison was appointed Superintendent of all the Royal Gardens, and in 1669 he became the first Professor of Botany in Oxford. In 1670 he gave the first lecture in the world on Plant Diversity, and he published “Praeludia Botanica”, which put the stress on the structure of
plants’ fruits for classification. He was also the first person to write on a specific group of plants – the Umbelliferae.

The Sherardian Chair of Botany was established in 1734 following an endowment by William Sherard. He stipulated in his Will that the first holder of the Chair should be Johann Dillenius. After his death his collection of manuscripts and books, and dried plants came into the possession of Oxford University.

Dillenius was followed by Humphry Sibthorp, and later his son John, who took part in the foundation of the Linnean Society in 1788. In 1794 he published ‘“Flora Oxoniensis” and founded Oxford’s Sibthorpian Professorship of Rural Economy.

The last significant name to be mentioned on our tour was that of Charles Daubeny. He conducted experiments on the effects of soil, light and the composition of the atmosphere on vegetation. He was also a good fundraiser and engaged well with the public.

During the course of the afternoon we learned a great deal about the Garden, not least that the oldest plant still existing – a yew tree – is the last survivor of the original planting.

The Work of the City Archaeologist – “Looking for King Alfred”

On March 9th we were given a talk by David Radford the Oxford City Archaeologist on his work, with special reference to King Alfred the Great, and his possible connections to the founding of the city of Oxford in the Saxon period.

He explained that the legislation requiring developers to facilitate archaeological excavations on sensitive sites resulted in the need for this work to be monitored by the city Archaeologist. We were told that there were three possible candidates for the founding of Oxford, of whom Alfred was one, but also his son Edward the Elder and Aethelflaed his daughter.

The main focus of the talk was on the various excavations around the city to determine the location of the ramparts defining the boundaries of the early settlement. The best preserved section is near the North Gate and Ship Street. We were shown an interesting Henry Taunt photograph of an excavation on the site of the New Bodleian.

Many excavations took place in the grounds of Oxford colleges during the development of new buildings. These included Wadham, Queen’s, St John’s and Corpus Christi. Remains of the ramparts have also been found in the Castle quarter where evidence shows them leading towards the Tower. The pottery finds in various sites have been difficult to date with any
accuracy as there was no defining style or composition.

The biggest and most recent excavation has been of the Westgate area prior to its redevelopment. This has exposed the largest range of mediaeval buildings yet uncovered in the city, including the remains of a Franciscan priory.

It was shown that it is still quite difficult to determine the dating and location of the early beginnings of Oxford in the Saxon period, but there is still much to be learned from the finds on this extensive site.