Where WW2 rubs shoulders with the original Coldstream Guards

Coldstream bunker
Coldstream bunker

While the 21st century carries on along Coldstream High Street, in one basement, it is still World War Two.

Walk This Way, run by Trevor Brunning and his wife, Helen, is half army surplus store, half museum. Camouflage gear and boots are for sale at street level, while downstairs the pair have recreated an air warden’s bunker.

Not only that, but the building contains reminders of the formation of the Coldstream Guards, Britain’s oldest regiment.

“Our neighbours’ garden was subsiding,” explains Trevor, “her husband was digging out the back, and he found the foundations of General Monck’s office.

“Monck was the man whose regiment in the English Civil War would eventually become the Coldstream Guards.”

“His officers would rent accommodation along the High Street. So, they were essentially in digs.”

The shop’s back is cobbled where stables would house officer’s horses, and Trevor’s basement would have been a cookhouse.

“I did think of trying to restore it to something like that,” he said, “but then I thought having the theme of the room as a 17th century cookhouse was a bit too much of a niche!”

Trevor regrets that, due to health and safety concerns, he had to hide the walls and ceiling of his basement, which were covered in soldiers’ graffiti.

It ranges from the traditional - dates of service, barrackroom bragging - to the quietly touching. One Owen Neilson, private, felt compelled to mark his height on the wall back in 1853. Perhaps he wanted to convince his superiors that he was the regulation height for an infantryman.

Trevor says he is looking into a way of showing the graffiti, perhaps by printing photographs of it on the modern walls he had to install.

He feels that Coldstream, and the region at large, is a lot more shy about its military links than private Neilson and his comrades were.

Trevor was surprised when he learned the origins of the famous Coldstream Guards.

“I didn’t know when I moved up here from London that the Coldstream Guards were from an actual town called that. But then again I never asked the Coldstream Guards I knew down South.

“And even today, I think you could drive through Coldstream and not realise it.”

“Mind, I don’t think it helps that, what with all their service down south, with the trooping of the colour and that, lots of people in the army consider the Coldstreamers an ‘English’ regiment.

“I mean, look at their insignia: St George’s crosses everywhere!”

Trevor is so passionate about conserving his artefacts and stories that nobody leaves his shop without learning something. And as a reluctant historian in his youth, he is convinced children learn best when they are allowed to interact and touch things.

So any kid wandering into Walk This Way will have a field day. They can get togged up in a child-size replica Coldstream Guards tunic, wear a gas mask and body armour, and sit in a jet’s ejector seat.

They can even try on a vintage guards hat, made of real bear skin (modern ones are synthetic).

Step down into the exhibition part of the cellar and you step back into a World War II air raid. Newspapers of the time are scattered about in a nook behind blackout curtains. A vintage bakelite phone rings, while a baby sits under an enormous - and very heavy - gas mask designed to fit over its cradle.

Trevor has rigged up speakers down there so that he can simulate the sounds of incoming bombs. The phone has been modified so that visiting children can use it to call upstairs for more ‘updates’ on the raid.

On the wireless, Vera Lynn’s wartime songs give way to Winston Churchill’s speechifying.

“Air raid bunkers were dark and dank,” said Trevor, “and we’ve managed to recreate that. It was fairly easy, because when we first came down here the basement was full of tins of talcum powder and chemicals that had been knocked over.”

And you would never have to worry about an air raid catching you unawares.

Trevor has an air raid warden’s rattle in his collection. Essentially a larger and louder version of the rattles once popoular at football matches, in the confines of his basement it is quite deafening.

This was one of the ways wardens would warn of approaching bombers in places like Coldstream without the large klaxons that the cities had.

One bomb did fall on Coldstream, but the story goes that only a rabbbit was killed.

Trevor says he is “always trading. There are certain things I won’t sell, but apart from those, the collection is fairly flexible.”

Trevor’s favourite collection pieces are all quite different. One of the most dramatic is what airmen call a ‘bang seat’, the ejector seat from a Sea Vixen fighter jet.

Again, Trevor has hooked up some earphones, so you can sit comfortably in the ‘bang seat’ while listening to what it would sound like to be ejected from a 690mph plane.

There are some even odder antiques in the shop. Across the basement wall, where some living rooms have ornamental flying ducks, there are three leaping Hitler figurines. Perhaps surprisingly, Trevor says he could have sold them many times over.

Other pieces highlight for Trevor the intense personal memories attached to the Second World War.

Many of these are donated to the collection by relatives of servicemen and women, and Trevor never sells on donations. His donors, he says, rarely make a great fuss about their wartime service.

“It was so very British to be humble about things like that,” says Trevor.

“I admit, it’s not always terribly sexy, all these bits like a pilot’s navigational almanac and so on, and you won’t see pilots holding this stuff in the films, but it’s that personal connection that touches people, I think.”