In a visit to the English country parish of Kelvedon Hatch early last month, in woodlands overlooked by a pretty little farmhouse, I found scores of schoolchildren celebrating the last days of their academic year. For them it was a special day out on an idyllic high-summer day in Essex. In retrospect it seems odd and a somewhat sinister that the friendly-looking nearby building is part of what has been called “the bunker at the end of the world.”
In fact the single-story structure hides the entrance to a large, cramped, labyrinthine human anthill– a self-sufficient, special-purpose underground town of concrete and steel. Described on a small signpost as the “Secret Nuclear Bunker,” it was built to house hundreds of people while they attempted to put together and manage Britain’s administrative heartland if and when it was torn apart by a Cold-War attack. It goes on my “must visit” list because unfortunately everyone should be aware of the continuing reality of nuclear weapons and the dire consequences of their use. The experience of visiting the bunker, like visiting the Churchill War Rooms in London, offers a closeness to reality which cannot be replicated by museum exhibitions and exhibits.
The master plan was that, in response to a warning, government officials, engineers and security teams would hasten to the bunker to watch and wait until the all-clear was announced — or until London, the submarine pens near Glasgow, the intelligence center at Cheltenham, and other targets were leveled at defense facilities in the United States and Britain. Boxed within a giant Faraday cage for protection against electromagnetic pulse, denizens of this U.K. mini-world would hope from a depth of 125 feet (38 m) to communicate with other command bunkers in the post-apocalyptic world by radio, teletype, computer, and the spindly antenna that poked into a sky darkened by dust and smoke.
The bunker was designed, and provisioned, to support 400 individuals for a period of three months, or 600 if three-layer bunks and lockers were lined on each side of the tunnels. Seventeen similar bunkers were built, of which one other, at Hack Green, Cheshire, is open to the public.
Anyone walking through Kelvedon Hatch’s dim and grimy dormitories, sick rooms and morgue, its communications center, damage analysis rooms, and shoulder-to-shoulder desk spaces for men and women attempting to deal with the ultimate crisis, would be visited by grim scenarios of how these people would struggle to survive during this most miserable quarantine. What would it be like to live through such a dread state of affairs? The possibilities are rich enough, and grim enough, to illustrate dozens more post-apocalyptic novels. Speculation on what would happen as the bunker’s occupants battled their own starvation, violence and fear before venturing into a blasted, burned, radio-contaminated and cold world would fill out many more. What would the last inhabitants of Kelvedon Hatch find out there, and whom?
The voice inside my hand-held guide provided a conversational chat on about just this:
“Only about three or four million people would have survived. There would be temperatures of minus 20 [Celsius] to minus 40 degrees. There’d be no harvest for at least three years. The first one would have been burnt off by the flash or the cold would have killed it. For the second you’d be too lethargic and in any case the radiation levels would have been too high. And for the third harvest you’d have to scrape away three or four inches of contaminated soil and sow by hand any seeds that you hadn’t already eaten. All this time you would be contending with marauding gangs of people who have radiation sickness. They’re not being fed, have a limited life span and what they want is your food . . . in all respects, you’d be going back to medieval times.”
That’s only one of the scary bits. As the narrative notes, “Einstein had it right when he said that if the next war was fought with the atom bomb then the one after that would be fought with bows and arrows.”
While the bunkers were in operation, the top echelon of government leaders would be enduring the evolution of nuclear attack in a much larger facility, luxurious by comparison – if they had time to get there. This was fashioned in the west of England from tunnels that were originally used to extract building stone in the years 1850-1910. Located under Corsham, Wiltshire, they were first used for military purposes between the two world wars. First came ammunition storage, then barracks, then a regional military communications center. During the 1950s, part of the complex was readied for the possible relocation, if nuclear war were imminent, of the prime minister and 4,000 government personnel. When the Cold War ended, it was semi-mothballed, and its perceived importance declined until, in December 2004, it was taken out of service. Though declassified, it still belongs to the Ministry of Defence and is open to visitors only through individual applications.]
Fortunately the “secret” nuclear bunker in Essex is now in private hands and modestly in business. All you have to do is enter CM15 0LA into your GPS navigator and it will get you there. Then for a small fee you can find your way to this rather forbidding (but very intriguing indeed) reminder of the Cold War.
How did the Kelvedon Hatch Secret Nuclear Bunker come to be? In 1952, about the time that the Corsham Tunnels was being redesigned for important visitors 140 miles away from London, someone drove the 20 miles from the capital to Kelvedon Hatch and knocked on the door of farmer Jim Parrish. “I’m from the Government and I’m afraid we will have to acquire 25 acres of your land for defense purposes,” he said, or something to this effect, and Parrish had no choice but to agree. Soon the area of interest was sealed off with guards and security fences. The construction project was finished in seven months, its three underground stories connected to the “farmhouse” by a 100-yard tunnel of corrugated steel. Its first assignment was to serve in an early-warning radar program, ROTOR, as operations center for the Metropolitan Sector of RAF Fighter Command.
At that time, seven years after the close of World War II, the prospect of a nuclear third world war seemed increasingly plausible. The Iron Curtain was in place and East-West tensions were high. The U.S. had its own atomic bomb, the Soviets had tested one in 1949 and Britain was about to test its own in Australia. Aircraft would be able to drop these weapons on faraway targets, and improved delivery systems would soon be developed in the shape of missiles (short-range and intercontinental) and submarines. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was founded in 1950 as part of the response to Soviet threats.
Naturally the United States was also taking pains to protect civilians against nuclear attack, particularly after 1950, when the government produced its Blue Book, which explained how civil defense operations would be implemented at each level of government. Its Cheyenne Mountain Complex was built in Colorado to house the giant underground North American Air Defense Command (NORAD), which maintained a constant lookout for invading Soviet missiles. Schoolkids were taught to “duck and cover” when the dread siren sounded; municipalities and even private citizens built or designated their own “fallout shelters.”
Prime Minister Winston Churchill and his cabinet decided that U.K. nuclear defense would include a number of early-warning radar detection hubs, one of which would be construction of the Essex center, near to London yet distant enough that it might escape destruction. Then as the Cold War heated up the bunker was transformed into a more diversified “Regional Government Headquarters” that could be used in the event of an actual nuclear strike. This role continued until after the nuclear threat subsided, in the early 1990s. Regional Government Headquarters 5.1 and much of its original equipment were sold back to Jim Parrish’s original farming family. It may never have been put to use in actual defense operations (the Ministry of Defence is quiet about such things), though there is a story that a UFO was radar-detected near there in May, 1957.
The current owner, Mike Parrish, describes today’s bunker laconically as an income source that helps make up for farming losses in a time of low wheat prices. The entire site is run as a tourist attraction and entertainment venue by Parrish and a staff of three, with the help of a CCTV network, those unnervingly detailed audio guides, and cardboard “honesty boxes” in place of cash registers. “Why not bring your scout group or youth group for an overnight stay and activities. Paranormal and role play groups welcome,” reads his pamphlet. Parrish told me one prospective customer even wanted to get married in the bunker, but his wife-to-be talked him out of it.
After my visit I finished a cup of tea in the dusty mess hall and shouldered my way out through the dense screen of foliage that hid the exit portal, blinking in the bright summer sunlight. Again I heard the happy cries of children at play and this time, in a kind of sad perversity, thought again of the horrors of war.