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Scattered about Britain (and, presumably, the world) are a number of sites, some open to the public, which had a role in the Cold War. The “secret nuclear bunker” at Kelvedon Hatch in Essex was built in the early 1950s as an operations centre for a huge radar and command/control project known as ROTOR. It subsequently became a designated “Regional Centre of Government” in the event of a nuclear strike on Britain, and allegedly would have housed about 600 civil servants and military personnel. Most of us, of course, would have fried.
The Cold War was a feature of the state of the human race post-Second World War (see A Bit About Britain after 1945). Briefly, it was a stand-off between the USA and her western allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation on the one side, and the Warsaw Pact countries led by the former Soviet Union, plus/or communist China and her allies, on the other. Occasionally, and usually in other people’s countries, it flared into open conflict. In Britain, and in nations on all sides from the 1950s to the 1980s, people grew up under the threat of nuclear annihilation. Indeed, I remember seeing instructions in comic magazines about what to do if you happened to be caught outside when The Bomb fell. More frightening and realistic was the BBC drama-documentary, “The War Game”, depicting an attack on the UK, made in 1965 and judged so frightening that it wasn’t shown on TV until 1985 (though it could be viewed privately).
British skies were once patrolled by bombers of the RAF’s V-Force, from which a nuclear strike could be launched against (presumably) the Soviet Union, until the aerial option was phased out by submarines of the Royal Navy equipped with Polaris missiles in the late 1960s – in turn replaced by Trident in the 1990s. Officially, the Cold War ended in 1989 or 1991. Since everybody is friends now, we no longer need all of the paraphernalia associated with perceived threats to our security, or protection from the risks of imminent destruction…
Which brings us back to this bunker; it sounds intriguing doesn’t it? And so it should be – but you may be disappointed.
Her Majesty’s Government divested itself of the place into private ownership in 1992. I visited in 2013. It is kind of amusing to follow road signs to “the secret nuclear bunker” – partly because of the obvious irony and partly because there’s an expectation of getting killed in the rush to get in. Anyway, off the by-ways of Essex, a concrete track winds across the fields until you eventually find yourself in a car park, surrounded by screaming children. They are not under attack; it appears that the nuclear bunker experience is now enhanced by an impressive (and scary looking) rope climbing and swinging experience – as well as a quad bike experience. So you set off through the trees in search of the bunker and stumble upon a ramshackle bungalow. This was once the innocent entrance and guard room to the complex far beneath your feet. There’s no one around and the place looks dirty and unkempt. A notice says that it costs £7 to do a tour, with an ‘audio wand’, payable on exit. The ‘wands’ look distinctly grubby and unhygienic. It is emphasised that a permit, available from the canteen, should be obtained before taking photographs. The canteen is located, via one of the most disgusting loos in Britain, along another path, through a chain-mesh gate, at the end of a pleasant corrugated iron tunnel cut into a hillside. The place is run-down, depressing, reeks of grease and there’s a large family enjoying eating unrecognisable things at a table.
The owners of this place are fond of notices. One reiterates the honesty policy regarding payment, which is fair enough, but continues in a rather aggressive vein to suggest we’re all under surveillance and there is no escape for rule-breakers. If it’s intended to intimidate, it succeeds; is the Essex mafia behind Kelvedon Nuclear Bunker? At the counter, two pimply youthful male assistants carefully ignored me. “Excuse me.” I eventually said. “Y’awlright?” replied one of the charm champions, resplendent in anciently stained clothes. On enquiring about a photo permit I was told the cost was £5 and a copy of something legal-looking was waved under my nose; this, apparently, was an agreement that the images were for personal use only. Featuring on a website? He’d have to ask his manager. I finally realised I was bored and offended by the whole grotty place; so I told him to forget it and left.
In fairness, Kelvedon Hatch Bunker receives mixed reviews; some people think it’s excellent. If anyone’s interested, you can find it listed on the attraction directory – but I won’t be going back unless and until I’m convinced the owners have decided to welcome and respect their visitors, and offer value for money. You can avoid temptation by not travelling on the A128 between Brentwood and Chipping Ongar – unless you fancy the rope and quad bike experiences, of course.