Across Britain, Silent Relics of the Cold War


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At the Kelvedon Hatch Nuclear Bunker in Essex, warning sirens would have signaled that a nuclear attack was imminent.

Credit
Andy Haslam for The New York Times

Buried beneath the breadth of Britain lies a legacy of the Cold War that was once a closely guarded secret but is now simply forgotten.

Because of its proximity to Eastern Europe — a Soviet missile would have taken only four minutes from detection to reaching its target — many in Britain felt the Cold War nuclear threat with a visceral immediacy. The result is the extensive network of bunkers planted by the government during the Cold War, from the 1,500-plus small radiation monitoring posts all over Britain, generally in rural and remote areas, to the more than a dozen enormous underground bunker complexes from which the country could have been governed if the capital was annihilated. The bunkers, many of which are now open to the public, were part of a vast plan that struck me on a recent visit as impressive but practically futile; more a balm against atomic fear than a viable survival plan.

During the Cold War, Britain became known as America’s “unsinkable aircraft carrier” for hosting its ally’s atomic bombers, long-range communications systems, intelligence infrastructure and missiles, making the threat of a nuclear strike palpable, wrote Nick Catford in “Cold War Bunkers,” an engrossing book of photographs published in 2010. Mr. Catford is a member of Subterranea Britannica, an English club dedicated to the study of all manner of underground sites. To counter this threat, the author wrote, “Britain became the most densely enbunkered nation in the world.”

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Entrance to the Cuckfield post.

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Andy Haslam for The New York Times

I was born in 1974 and have always been interested in the Cold War imagery that dominated the political and popular culture of my formative years, from the “Star Wars” Strategic Defense Initiative to movies like “WarGames” and “Red Dawn,” and the scary, anti-proliferation songs of Ozzy Osbourne such as “Killer of Giants” and the MTV staple “Crazy Train.”

In the years since, I often wondered what had become of the West’s enormous defense infrastructure since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. I took advantage of a family trip to England to visit some of the relatively unsubscribed but often weird Cold War sites there, a journey that was given all the more relevance because my visit took place shortly before the 70th anniversary of Winston Churchill’s utterance of the phrase “iron curtain” in his “Sinews of Peace” speech on March 5, 1946, an event that many historians mark as the beginning of the Cold War.

Nowhere on my tour was the psychic dread of the Cold War more in evidence than at the Kelvedon Hatch Secret Nuclear Bunker in Essex — about 25 miles northeast of central London — which bills itself as the “biggest and deepest Cold War bunker open to the public in Southeast England.” The bunker, which was decommissioned in the early 1990s, could hold 600 military and civilian personnel, all locked underground behind one-and-a-half-ton blast doors. Arrangements were made to stash the prime minister and a provisional government there, but the only human forms during my visit were creepy life-size mannequins dressed in military uniforms, often with wigs askew, meant to illustrate life in the various wings of the bunker, including the canteen, sick bay, dormitories and military headquarters.

Visitors to the museum are greeted by a dated, grainy video of Mike Parrish, the bunker’s owner. Mr. Parrish appears on the television screen as a man in late middle age with a tidy gray beard and a maroon V-neck sweater emblazoned with a trefoil — the international symbol of radiation. His sober, businesslike instructions for how to proceed unaccompanied through the complex have the air of a recording intended to be played in the event of his untimely death.

The bunker was built by the Royal Air Force in 1952 after the land under which it sits was bought compulsorily from the Parrish family. Initially intended as a radar installation, the bunker evolved into what Mr. Parrish describes in the video as “the would-be home of regional government in the event of nuclear attack.” In the early ’90s the bunker was sold back to the family, who now runs it as a distinctly improvised tourist attraction. I was instructed to follow white arrows shaped like guided bombs and to drop £7 in an honesty box at the end of the tour, while signs advising customers that they are being watched on closed circuit TV amplify a general air of menace.

The Kelvedon Hatch facility is one of more than a dozen underground government headquarters in Britain and is both gloriously bizarre and genuinely fascinating, with the owners’ morbid sense of humor making itself evident in the exhibits and, especially, on the deadpan audio guide. It stands in stark contrast to the Churchill War Rooms in central London, one of the slickest and well-attended tourist attractions in England. Though used only during World War II, Churchill’s tidy war rooms, with their lifelike wax figures and careful attention to historical detail, provide an excellent antecedent for the bunker fever that would sweep England, which was very much informed by the German bombing raids during the war.

The bunker at Kelvedon Hatch is entered though an unassuming farm cottage, which is really just a steel and concrete-reinforced shell of a house. As I descended a 120-yard-long tunnel and held a clunky red audio-tour handset to my ear, the laconic voice of Mr. Parrish inquired, “I don’t suppose you’ve given the next war very much thought?” He went on to describe how the soil above would produce no viable harvest for three years after a nuclear attack, during which time one would contend for food with “marauding gangs” of radiation-sickened survivors in an environment resembling that of medieval times.

The prevailing wisdom held that a nuclear war would follow a few weeks of escalating tension — much as there was during the Cuban Missile Crisis — then a short conventional war followed by all-out nuclear war, which Mr. Parrish described on the audio tour as “the big bang.” Apart from being guarded full time by a handful of soldiers and during routine equipment checks, the bunker wasn’t regularly manned during much of its Cold War life, but would have been staffed and stocked with food and water if war was thought imminent.

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The Kelvedon bunker is hidden under a house.

Credit
Andy Haslam for The New York Times

The damp, musty entrance tunnel deposits visitors approximately 100 feet underground at the bunker’s deepest level, which was thought to be the safest. It was there that the three-story bunker’s most critical operations were housed, including the enormous air filtration and cooling systems crucial to running the bunker and the map-laden “plotting rooms” where military and civilian staff would have tried to determine the size and nature of the attack and severity of the fallout.

Also on this bottommost level were the dimly lit communications rooms — from which the bunker’s staff would have coordinated a military response and relayed instructions to the survivors above — which felt like a monument to obsolete equipment. It accommodated more than 2,500 telephone lines, and the teleprinters that would have spat out instructions still sit on desks near an old “doll’s eye” telephone exchange on which an operator would have patched calls through by connecting wires with the relevant sockets, from the bunker’s earliest days.

Packed and piled into every free space were unlabeled and random-seeming pieces of communications equipment, instruments, protective clothing, maps and paperwork. On one desk was a copy of a commercial telephone book left open to the pages listing funeral directors. On another sat old editions of The Daily Mail, including one chronicling the Queen’s coronation, bearing the headline, “Let Us Cherish Our Own Way of Life.”

Nearby I peered into the still-intact BBC broadcasting studio from which the prime minister, should he or she have been spirited to the bunker, could have spoken to the nation. At the microphone sits a smiling mannequin dressed in a fuchsia dress that bore a strong resemblance to Margaret Thatcher. A soundtrack of sirens, bleeps, alerts and emergency announcements is all that broke the eerie silence.

The bunker, said the voice of Mr. Parrish, was about protecting the people who “will pop up at the appropriate time and bring to you and me, the survivors, hope, help, succor and maybe a little bit of food.” Those people — civil servants, scientists, military personnel and government officials — would have worked from the bunker’s middle floor, which still contains work stations with yellowing desktop computers and analog rotary telephones. I laughed out loud when I peered into a cell labeled “prime minister” and saw a grinning mannequin with silver, side-parted hair — presumably John Major — lying on a cot, tucked to his chin under a gray blanket.

The bunker’s top floor, closest to the surface, has rows of bunk beds and a sick bay, where mannequins in surgical scrubs preside over bandaged mannequin patients.

On my way out I dropped £2 in the honesty box at a photo station and prepared to have my portrait taken in a gas mask, before realizing that there was nobody around to operate the Polaroid camera. I recalled Mr. Parrish’s chilling words on the audio guide when he said if the cottage above took a direct hit, “then this is where you’d have spent the rest of your life.”

He added: “There is nobody up there, and anyway it’s secret, so nobody knows you’re here.”

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Display of a homemade civilian bunker at Kelvedon.

Credit
Andy Haslam for The New York Times

A more genial mood prevailed the following day, when I met two Subterranea Britannica members, Ed Combes and Mark Russell, on the outskirts of the West Sussex village of Cuckfield, at the Royal Observer Corps monitoring post they have restored. The post is no more than a tiny room buried 15 feet underground, from which a team of civilian volunteers would have analyzed the fallout from a nuclear attack and sent the data they collected back to a plotting room, like the one I saw at Kelvedon Hatch.

We were joined by the club’s chairman, Martin Dixon, and his wife, Linda.

Above ground, the post is unassuming. A small, green-painted concrete cube topped with a hatch pokes out of the ground amid a three-acre, fenced-in parcel of land that also contained a beekeeper’s hives and four grazing sheep. A cylindrical probe — the radiation detector — protrudes from the grass a few yards away from the hatch near the post’s air vent, which sprouts below a mast flying the light blue flag of the Royal Observer Corps, the volunteer force that would, theoretically, warn the populace of an imminent nuclear strike and measure its fallout.

In 1991 work in the post came to an abrupt halt when the Soviet Union collapsed and the Cold War thawed, said Mr. Russell, who has visited around 900 of them, many of which still have cigarette butts in the ashtrays from the last day the volunteers were down there, or an old tea bag left in a cup. “They are proper little time capsules,” he said.

Mr. Combes, 35, and Mr. Russell, 37, both had collections of artifacts from observer corps posts when they began restoring the one in Cuckfield, chosen because it was in relatively good shape. “Some of them were flooded or had dead animals in them, or kids had been inside and set fire to them,” said Mr. Russell. With permission from the local council, they cleaned it up and stocked it with Cold War-era supplies, hardware and provisions, which were either donated by former observers, traded for with other collectors or bought on eBay, Mr. Combes said. In 2010 they began opening it for free public tours several weekends a year.

The post at Cuckfield is one of a handful the public can visit, but Subterranea Britannica (“Sub Brit,” to those in the know) organizes access for its more than 1,100 dues-paying members to various other underground and secret Cold War sites that are not generally accessible. Mr. Dixon, the club’s chairman, told me he enjoys underground sites from coal mines to transportation tunnels to military installations because, whatever their age, they are a good prism through which to study history. “Nothing is more exciting than going into a place that few others have seen or seeing something that’s been hidden for hundreds of years,” he said, adding, “and you’re never too far from the pub.”

One by one we descended the ladder to the cramped shaft leading to the post, taking care not to slip on the slick metal rungs. At about 100 square feet, the post made me feel as if I were in a rabbit hutch, albeit a large one. It had polystyrene panels covered in flame-retardant white paint on the walls and ceiling and was just big enough to hold the monitoring and communications equipment, including a giant gauge that measured radiation in kilopascals and a two-way land line “teletalk” system, which works sort of like an old-fashioned speakerphone. Mr. Combes and Mr. Russell sometimes fire it up to communicate with other restored posts. After a few minutes my feet became chilled by the cold, damp air that radiated from the concrete floor, over which scraps of carpet had been laid in a futile attempt to help insulate it.

After a nuclear blast, one of the three volunteer “observers” manning the post was to scamper out of the bunker into a likely radiation-contaminated environment, and remove the negatives from a pinhole camera adjacent to the hatch, from which they would be able to help determine the location and type of blast.

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Rations at the Cuckfield monitoring post in West Sussex.

Credit
Andy Haslam for The New York Times

If a strike was imminent, Mr. Combes said, the observers would sound a hand-operated siren and fire small, flarelike rockets, indicating that people should “get underground or in your basement and stay there until these guys with their measuring equipment detected that the levels of fallout radiation had fallen enough that it was safe to come back above ground and carry on,” he said, making air quotes with his fingers around the word “safe.” Mr. Combes said he’s spoken with dozens of ex-observers, and while they are all proud of their service, some admit the system might have been ineffectual.

In addition to hardware, Mr. Combes and Mr. Russell have also provided ephemera like a copy of the Observer’s Handbook and the Official Secrets Acts, as well as decades-old cans of rations labeled “Curried Chicken,” “Steak and Kidney Pudding” and “Oatmeal Blocks” that reminded me of the bad-old days of uninspired British cuisine. Near the ladder, a small closet contains a chemical toilet and is stocked with vintage toilet paper, each sheet stamped “Government Property.”

The team of volunteers manning the post were required to pass psychological profiling deeming they had the mental makeup for long periods underground in the event of a nuclear war, Mr. Combes said. With five of us in the post for about a half an hour, I could see how being sequestered down there for long stretches could easily drive someone mad, and I had a moment of panic that we’d somehow get stuck down there.

I asked Mr. Combes if, when he visits the post, he worries that miscreants will come along and secure the hatch, locking him inside.

“Every time,” he said, without a moment’s hesitation.

IF YOU GO

If you’re interested in visiting underground Cold War sites, such as the Royal Observer Corps monitoring post in Cuckfield, the best place to start is Subterranea Britannica. Its website is comprehensive, and members are often allowed access to sites not open to the public. Membership starts at £21 per year (about $30); subbrit.org.uk

The Kelvedon Hatch Secret Nuclear Bunker is about an hour northeast of London. (Kelvedon Hall Lane, Kelvedon Hatch; 44-1277-364883; secretnuclearbunker.com)

Hack Green Secret Nuclear Bunker near Stoke-on-Trent is also open to the public and hosts Cold War re-enactments and “ghost hunts” and can be hired for birthday parties and wedding receptions. (French Lane, Nantwich, Cheshire; 44-1270-629219; hackgreen.co.uk)

Near St. Andrews, Scotland’s Secret Bunker was hidden under an “innocent Scottish farmhouse.” (Crown Buildings, Troywood, Fife; 44-1333-310301; secretbunker.co.uk)

There was an active Cold War bunker under Dover Castle, whose history dates back to medieval times, that is open to visitors a few weekends per year. (Castle Hill, Dover, Kent, 44-1304-211067; www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/dover-castle)

The Churchill War Rooms were not used during the Cold War, but shouldn’t be missed by anyone interested in British bunkers. (Clive Steps, King Charles Street, London; 44-207-9306961; iwm.org.uk/visits/churchill-war-rooms)



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