by Mark Harris
You won’t find Britain’s most interesting bunkers by playing the pristine golf courses at St Andrews Links. For a gritty taste of a hidden Britain, it’s well worth seeking out the crumbling concrete relics of the Cold War.
Between the end of World War II and the 1990s, Britain was on the front line of a global struggle between the West and the Soviet bloc. Halfway between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, it was the base for much of NATO’s nuclear arsenal – and the target for much of Russia’s.
Now those tensions have (mostly) disappeared, the public can at last explore that shadowy period – and there are some fascinating stories to discover.
Finding the Kelvedon Hatch Secret Nuclear Bunker these days is easy: just follow the road signs saying “Secret Nuclear Bunker” in Essex, east of London. In the 1950s, it wasn’t so simple. From the outside, the bunker is built to look like a typical midcentury bungalow nestled in a stand of trees. But appearances are deceptive.
Inside, a 100-yard tunnel leads down into a shelter designed to withstand the effects of a nuclear blast. The bunker had its own air conditioners, heating, water supply, hospital and generators, and access to state-of-the-art (for the time) communications gear.
It could support up to 600 military and civilian personnel for up to three months – including the Prime Minister, should he or she be nearby when the three-minute warning of a nuclear attack went out. These days, the technology looks quaint and the security almost laughable. But there’s still a whiff of Cold War paranoia in its dusty corridors, offices and operating rooms.
You can visit a similar but smaller shelter at Hack Green in Cheshire. Originally built as a radar station during World War II, the site between Liverpool and Birmingham was later fortified to withstand a potential nuclear attack and then became an air traffic control station. It now hosts ghost hunts, corporate events and bachelorette parties.
Incredibly, another nuclear bunker was in a place that has protected Britain since biblical times. Perched above the English Channel, Dover Castle in Kent was the site of a Saxon camp prior to even the Roman invasion. It was fortified during medieval times to deter attacks from French and again, more recently, to fight Nazi German armies. Its deep tunnels were chosen for possible use as a regional seat of government in a post-apocalyptic Britain.
Not all Britain’s Cold War relics are underground. At Orford Ness on the Suffolk Coast in eastern England, you can absorb your military history with a bracing dose of sea air. It was on these desolate shingle beaches that Britain first experimented with radar systems to detect aircraft and tested its first atomic weapons.
A short boat ride brings you to some strange-looking “pagodas” built with heavy concrete roofs designed to collapse and seal the buildings should something go badly wrong — which would have buried hapless scientists along with any radioactive materials.
The country’s most famous — and most easily accessible — bunker is from the World War II era: the Churchill War Rooms in London. As the Blitz raged above them, British officials kept the government going and determined war strategy in these underground chambers. Exhibits also lay out details of Winston Churchill’s life. Since 1984, they’ve been open to the public as part of the Imperial War Museums, which explores war through history to the present day.
Sadly, one of the nation’s best preserved Cold War sites is still officially off limits. The Royal Air Force Station at Upper Heyford in Oxfordshire was home to U.S. F-111 jets equipped with nuclear weapons. The disused base now feels like an American ghost town, from its bizarre-looking concrete aircraft hangars to a deserted diner and decaying movie theater.
English Heritage successfully lobbied for the base to be protected from development, but there are still no plans for public access. However, you will be able to see Upper Heyford this summer, when it appears in Brad Pitt’s blockbuster movie “World War Z.” Wonder if those nuclear bunkers are also zombie proof?
Photos: Children explore Dover Castle. The clifftop fortress boasts more than 2,000 years of commanding the English Channel on the coast of England and could be the site of a post-apocalyptic bunker. (Photo by Daniel Bosworth/Visit Britain and Kent Tourism Alliance)
The technology in the Secret Nuclear Bunker seems laughable now but was state of the art during the Cold War. (Photo by Mark Harris)
At Orford Ness, British researchers experimented with radar technology and nuclear warning systems. (Photo by Mark Harris)