AVRIL WILLIAMS – Historian extraordinaire

“People search all their lives to find the contentment I now feel, I am doing this for them.’
Avril Williams

By Evelyn McKechnie

In October 2003, I paid my very first visit to the Somme, choosing to stay at accommodation called ‘Ocean Villas’ as it was right on the front line of the battlefield. It was here I first met an extraordinary woman called Avril Williams.

Avril Williams (courtesy of surlalignedefront)

OCEAN VILLAS

Avril Williams originally came from England to the Somme in France after a divorce to help her sister run a B&B. She later decided to try out on her own and has never looked back. It’s not always been easy, but she has thrived on all the challenges that she came across.

10 rue delattre, Auchonvillers, Somme

On the 1st July 1992, Avril saw the potential charm and business possibilities of a rather run-down dwelling at No 10 rue Delattre in Auchonvillers and she bought it. She lived in the attic with her two young kids, with blankets as partitions, while it was being renovated.

Avril in the museum at RFC and RAF exhibition

I once asked Avril how she got so many people to help her in the early days – her answer was pretty straight forward – ‘I just asked them’. Great War enthusiasts would travel from Britain to do plumbing and joinery for her plus a host of other jobs to help make the place habitable.

Once she got one room ready, she would advertise that for a paid stay and then the next room and so on. Some re-enactors would even kip over in the cellar while they helped out around the place.

Re-enactors kipping in the cellar at Auchonvillers

With determination and concentration on the positives and total disregard for the negatives, she gradually continued to renovate the property and let her first rooms at Easter 1993. The Tea Room began in the living room and then moved into the renovated barn attached to the kitchen.

Communication trench at Auchonvillers

Then Avril converted the old milking shed into a first floor flat and the Tea Room moved to the ground floor, since when it and its facilities have continued to expand.

10 RUE DELATTRE, AUCHONVILLERS

‘Ocean Villas’ is the name the British Tommy gave the small hamlet of Auchonvillers. In walking distance, there are numerous Commonwealth grave cemeteries, the Hawthorn Ridge Crater, the Sunken Lane, Beaumont Hamel Newfoundland Park and Serre – the killing ground of the Sheffield Pals regiments, ‘Two years in the making, 10 minutes in the destroying‘.

Auchonvillers

That run down farmhouse is now a thriving business with a Great War and Second World War museum, described by Richard Holmes as one of the best private collections of wartime memorabilia. There is also a conference hall, self-catering flats, bed and breakfast plus good home fare cooking in the evening.

Beer Garden

There is also an original cellar used once used as a first-aid post, and the original trench leading into the cellar which has been carefully uncovered. Lots of medical artefacts were discovered during the excavation of the cellar. A large number of tunic buttons were found after uniforms were being hastily removed for medics to treat the wounded.

Cellar at Auchonvillers

Avril told me when she came to the Somme, her knowledge of the Great War was almost non-existent, that you could write it in on the back of a postage stamp – she had not even known when the Great War had begun.

Conference Centre – used for plays, events, bands, weddings, show and tell history

She never went to university or did any history courses, her life was having kids, keeping house and going out to work. Avril worked in a factory and told me she was quite shy – hard to believe nowadays. Coming to the Somme was where she found her voice and her confidence.

MAKING HISTORY INTERESTING

With her increasing knowledge of the battlefield, Avril has guided and hosted many historian guests and TV crews, frequently appearing in their programmes. Her fame grows apace.

She has a natural gift of making history interesting and telling stories, not the dry facts and figures scenarios of the many history presenters who grace our screens. She has that wonderful gift that some strive for – Avril connects with people, naturally on-screen and off-screen.

Communication trench which leads into the cellar

I asked her how she gained so much knowledge which she seemed to have soaked up like a sponge. ‘I had the best tutors in the world – every kind of person would come through Auchonvillers and I just picked it up along the way from them’.

Entrance to cellar

Her knowledge comes from the historians researching books to people coming to trace their ancestors or simply just to pay respects to a fallen loved one. Their personal stories line the walls of the communal living room, alongside many books signed by the author, many researched within the walls of Auchonvillers.

LEAP OF FAITH

There are so many women whose potential goes unrecognised, who don’t realise that they are capable of so much more in their lives. Is it fate? For Avril, she absolutely blossomed after her divorce and leaving factory life. When all seemed lost, struggling and in despair, she upped sticks and just went for it – it was a huge leap of faith. Now she is a successful businesswoman who took a chance, whilst working very hard to achieve it. Because she did, so many of us have been rewarded by the fact she came into our lives. 

Great War artifacts in the Andre Coilliot Museum in Auchonvillers

‘Ocean Villas’ the ‘estate’ has grown in sophistication, and Avril’s reputation for hospitality and enterprise has spread with it. Her heartfelt feeling for those who fought and made the ultimate sacrifice on the Somme from 1916 to 1918 led Avril into detailed research of the battlefield and the men who endured there.

THE CELLAR

This also led to her discovering that her well-preserved cellar had been used as a dressing station, first by the French in 1914 and then in 1916 by the Royal Irish Rifles and other units. She discovered graffiti, personal effects and artefacts. James Crozier who was shot at dawn was thought to have been kept prisoner in this cellar before he was taken out and executed.

Graffiti in cellar at 10 due Delattre, Auchonvillers

Behind the house, an original trench system was gradually dugout with the enthusiastic help of Andy Robertshaw and his Trench Team, the Durand Group and various Army and RAF volunteers. It is an ongoing project.

Trench system at Auchonvillers

But Avril’s empire-building ambition never seems to wane, despite many setbacks and financial headaches. In 2004 she bought the derelict farm buildings across the road from 10 rue delattre. Her plans included a conference centre and student accommodation but in 2006 the ideal purpose emerged after a chat with André Coilliot, owner of a fantastic Great War and Second World War collection of artefacts. He told her of his many disappointments with finding a home for his collection.

THE MUSEUM

They came to a financial agreement for the sale of many of the items and André donated many others. It took her 18 months to convince her bank to fund the daunting task of conversion. But Avril is never daunted for long. 

Museum at Auchonvillers

Tonie and Valmai Holt of Holts Tours finally declared the Andre Coilliot museum opened in 2008 with Martin Middlebrook inaugurating the Wall of Remembrance.

Avril with the Lesley Stokes collection of the compass and case which featured on TV
WW2 American Jeep in museum

This is probably the first private Remembrance Wall ever in the Western Front for both those who survived or killed in action where you can buy a plaque named to a loved one that served or died in the Great War.

Wall of Remembrance

Avril said, ‘Andre has collected all his life, his work should never be forgotten. His collection was the best in the area. I feel the Museum was a stepping stone to make the Wall of Remembrance. As of now, I am whole in the knowledge that this is what my life has been about ‘Remembering the 1WW Soldier.’ 

WW2 German Pak 40 at Auchonvillers

Thousands of people have visited Auchonvillers, either on a day trip, to stay, to research, for lunch, to visit the museums or just relax in the beautiful beer garden. From school kids, academics, historians, TV presenters, and archaeologists to someone remembering their loved one. 

Andy Robertshaw giving one of the many talks at Auchonvillers

Ocean Villas exists today because of one woman’s vision and determination to succeed. I will leave the final comment to Avril and just say for myself that I am really glad she took that gigantic leap of faith. She is an inspiration to so many women and many men.

“People search all their lives to find the contentment, I now feel I am doing this for them. Sounds stupid but this is just how I feel. I haven’t finished yet but now I know this is my life to do exactly what I am doing. I want to leave behind a very good centre which will always be here and run just as I intended. My children will continue I feel sure and even make it more or a Remembrance Centre.

Information on staying at Avril’s or visiting the museum can be found at http://www.avrilwilliams.eu/

Information on the Somme Tourist Board at  https://www.visit-somme.com/great-war

Listen to Avril talking about Auchonvillers and James Crozier, Shot at Dawn – http://surlalignedefront.fr/2014/04/02/avril-williams-la-grande-guerre-en-heritage/

If you would like to find out more about the Great War, please download my app.

The Great War Battlefields of the Western Front iPhone App – http://apple.co/2hUMrVP

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Many thanks, all donations gratefully received, however small. Evelyn

Published by spotonlocations

Scottish based company designing travel apps for historical locations. Travel apps that will take you on amazing journeys to destinations in history where famous events took place. Scotland, Castles, Clans, WW1 & WW2

2 thoughts on “AVRIL WILLIAMS – Historian extraordinaire

  1. I was extremely lucky to discover Avril’s place quite a few years ago now thanks to my cousin Evelyn, not only the author of this article, but also a very knowledgeable tour guide thanks to whom I discovered the history of the WW1 battlefields in the area. Evelyn’s take is more on the human side of this very sad and often horrific period when so many young men lost their lives.
    Avril’s place is like a home away from home, friendly, comfortable where on the spot you can visit reconstructed trenches and have an insight to what the lives of those young men had to endure.
    If you are interested from a personal point of view because you may have loved one who lost their lives in the the war or just as a discovery, I highly recommend paying a visit to Avril’s, you won’t be disappointed.

    Like

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