Kelvedon Hatch Secret Nuclear Bunker

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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.

Kelvedon Hatch Nuclear BunkerThe 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).

Avro Vulcan, RAF HendonBritish 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.

Submarines still patrol the seas - this is possibly USS Rhode Island in 2013. Photo via Pixabay.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.

There are several alternative bunker attractions in Britain, including the York Cold War Bunker, Hack Green in Cheshire and Scotland’s Secret Bunker.


19 thoughts on “Kelvedon Hatch Secret Nuclear Bunker

  1. hilarymb

    Hi Mike – this has distinctly put me off! Well done!! Sounds appalling now … would it have served a purpose … I hope there’d have been some female civil servants … for our future population once we’d been fried. Thanks for alerting us to this not so pleasurable experience! Cheers Hilary

  2. Dorothy Prosser

    This sounds like a good place to avoid! I sem to remember seeing a TV programme about one of these bunkers a year or two back. I remember the Cold War if course, we were aware of the possibilities of course but being young and with lots of other things to occupy us I don’t recall that it impinged a great deal on our lives apart from the Cuban affair in 1962. That was definitely worrying even though I was only 16 at the time.

  3. The History Anorak

    That’s all rather sad. I know it was a pretty disgusting period of history (not that things have change much lately) but to make it so physically unpleasant to stress the point.

    Oh the other hand, my Dad worked for GCHQ at one of the satellite stations and I can remember that one night he didn’t come home on time. Mother did her best to calm us down but it was clear she was worried. It wasn’t until many years later when I saw something on TV (possibly The War Game) that I realised what might have happened that night.

    Eventually he told us a few details. Apparently the Yanks detected that ‘something’ had been thrown in our direction and Dad’s lot spent most of the night persuading them that it was only a blip and they didn’t have to throw something back! They were on lock-down, of course. Thinking back it’s terrifying that we could have been in nuclear melt down because of a stupid error.

  4. mekslibrarian

    I would be most interested in visiting such a place but the experience with “customer service” you describe would definitely put me off completely.
    Here in my town, we have a bakery (they have 11 or 12 shops dotted across town) whose “headquarters” moved to what once used to be the building of a branch of Baden-Wuerttemberg’s Bank of State. It was built in Cold War times and the bakery owners cleverly kept the original architectural features of the 1950s and 60s – complete with gilded and marble pillars in what used to be the bank’s foyer and is now where the actual baking takes place, and a system of underground walkways and safe rooms designed to withstand even an atomic bomb. The flour store is in the former strongroom, with the huge old metal door still there – nobody knows the code anymore, so it is always kept open.
    I was lucky enough to visit the place on a guided tour (with some hands-on baking, too) a year or so ago and found it a great experience. We were offered a glass of champagne each at the start, so that may be an idea for the managers of Kelvedon 🙂

    1. Penny Griffiths

      I’ve been there more than once, and yes, you could possibly say it is grotty, but it’s authentic and that’s what the majority of people want, I wouldn’t want to go underground into a shelter and find it all shiny and sparkly. The weird thing about the “smells” though is that they change, I’m not kidding, the smells do change.

  5. Carla TePaske

    Oh yes, the Cold War!
    Interesting to get the UK history.

    I hear that you will be visiting with Mr. C of Cranberry Morning. 🙂 Our family are good friends with Judy and Kevin.
    Have fun!

  6. Cynthia

    At first I was disappointed that you had no photos of the interior forthcoming but then I realized I already had the creeps just reading your words about the Cold War. It brings back memories of my childhood and growing up under that threat. During the Cuban Missile Crisis my parents stocked a fallout shelter in our basement per ridiculous instructions on tv for how to survive a nuclear attack.

  7. Blue Sky Scotland

    Interesting. Taking photographs of buildings can be a minefield. Supposedly, not really allowed to take photos inside public buildings at all without written permission?… or buildings from the outside if built after the 1970s-90s? or anyone’s private house from the outside unless you have their permission to do so, or works of art of living artists… if you intend to make money from it. Yet millions do every day… photograph things I mean and put them online. I scrapped an alternative book on Glasgow that was nearly completed as I would have needed dozens of signed permission slips to photograph anything worthwhile and concluded it wasn’t worth the bother. Also scrapped about 10 indoor posts for same reason once I inquired and still not sure of the rules and when they apply so gave up. I think if its a free post without any profit being made its OK. I stick to hills, rivers, animals and outdoor stuff now just in case.

  8. williamkendall1

    We have one west of the city that was built to house the Cabinet in the event of a nuclear strike. It’s been a Cold War museum for years. It has a very good reputation.

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