“People search all their lives to find the contentment I now feel, I am doing this for them.’
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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‘.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
‘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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Tonie and Valmai Holt of Holts Tours finally declared the Andre Coilliot museum opened in 2008 with Martin Middlebrook inaugurating the Wall of Remembrance.
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.
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.’
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.
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/
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