What lies beneath

By | Category: Travel destinations

As a teenager growing up in the Reagan years towards the end of the Cold War, living with the existential threat of imminent nuclear Armageddon was something we just took for granted. From 30 years later it all seems so unreal, especially to younger generations.

What lies beneath

So a recent holiday in Essex provided a golden opportunity to mix nostalgia with enlightening my children. Why not visit a nuclear bunker?

Kelvedon Hatch lies just to the east of London, a few miles from Brentwood. The only outward signs of anything different are a radio mast in the middle of a field and signs directing drivers to the Secret Nuclear Bunker. How ironic that during the 80’s this bunker and others were “not on the map” and now tourist signs highlight their presence. A short drive from the main road through fields leads to a car park and a path leading down through woods. At the bottom lies a nondescript bungalow which hides the actual entrance to the bunker. Why anyone thought a bungalow was a good disguise for a bunker is anyone’s guess.

In the former Guardroom which serves as the entrance you pick up a handset which will be your guide on a self-paced tour which will take at least an hour, but in all likelihood much longer. The admission fee is payable at the end, by cash via an honesty box, with a family ticket costing £16 for 2 adults and 2 children.

Once you’ve taken a hand set, you walk through the “bungalow” and in to the entrance tunnel. The 100m concrete lined tunnel leads you into the heart of the bunker, more than 30m under the hill and the radio mast above. At its end are blast doors weighing more than a ton each and as you pass these you experience an air of finality, a realisation that back in the day if you’d got this far then the future was looking pretty bleak.

Going underground

Going underground

Inside the guide takes you through various rooms filled with period fittings. In some there are computers from the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s; manual and automatic telephone exchanges and other communications equipment. In other public information films are shown, informing of the effects of fallout, fire storms and radiation poisoning. These tableaux are all the more unnerving for being populated by mannequins in period clothing. As you continue on the tour you encounter huge generators and rooms from which the country was to be governed in the event of war. The dormitory areas are a real eye-opener, tiny and cramped, stacked with narrow bunk beds. It may have been a place to survive, but bunker life would have been no bed of roses. The infirmary reinforces this air of doom, especially with the cardboard coffins for those who didn’t make it.

Read it and weep

Read it and weep

Towards the end of the tour you come to the cafe and gift shop, again run on an honesty box principle. Here, amongst the usual gift shop paraphernalia can be found such gems as copies of “Protect and Survive” and other civil defence pamphlets, alongside DVDs of public information films.

This may sound like a downbeat attraction, but both my children (16yrs and 13yrs) expressed delight and amazement. I’m not sure the thought of having to use such a facility could be considered “cool” (a word both of them used), but in their eyes it was something from a simpler time, when you knew who the “bad guys” were. It is atmospheric and haunting, a tantalising glimpse of what might have been. Built in 1952 and decommissioned in 1992 it had a 40 year operational life, and it all that time it was useful for 12 months. Bonkers.

More information on the Secret Nuclear Bunker can be found at http://www.secretnuclearbunker.com/index.php

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