This Secret Nuclear Bunker in Essex Is Terrifying
But also a great day out if you want to be reminded that you can be vaporised in a matter of seconds.
A funny thing about talking to people raised in the 1950s and 60s is their heady recollection of the Cold War. WWII was over, but with its atrocities still visible in the rear-view mirror, the people of Great Britain had to deal with a new threat: a stern, paranoid Russian man with his finger hovering over a big red nuclear button. The US attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were still very fresh in everyone's minds, and transposing the images of horror and devastation from the Land of the Rising Sun to Sunderland can't have been too difficult. Us millennials are – or at least we're told to be – party to a different kind of unease: the threat of global terrorism. But ISIS and Al Qaeda's efforts to bring death to the West have nothing on the potential threat of a multi-decade-long radiation nightmare turning all the lights off and Chapmaning all four Beatles at once.
There is a massive nuclear bunker in Kelvedon Hatch near Shenfield, Essex. It was built secretly in just seven months between 1952 and 1953, and it was meant to house the government in the event of everything going Pete Tong. After the Cold War had ended, the cost of keeping the bunker on stand-by was too great, so it was sold privately at a closed auction, and is now open to the public as an attraction. I couldn't shake the feeling that my Saturdays had gotten a bit too full of joy and contentment recently, so I decided to go and check out Essex's foremost musty, disused crisis shelter for the rich and powerful in the event of national vaporisation.
The day of my visit was the Queen's official birthday. The hot, wet weather felt like a ruined holiday and the faint smell of chocolate clung to the air. Shenfield, the site of the nearest train station, is a typical low-rise suburban town; a great many Range Rovers hummed up and down the high street. I don't know if it was something to do with blast radius or just a desire to keep maimed, radioactive proles away from the Prime Minister but there is no easy way to get to the bunker; it's in the middle of nowhere along a country road. I had to get a cab. The driver spent the whole time telling me how much he'd hated going underground when he lived in London, as "Don't Stop Believing" by Journey played on the radio. It was all getting a bit "fade to black" and I hadn't even reached the fucking bunker yet.
At the distant end of a dirt road, a row of 20 or so middle-aged Harley Davidson bikers formed an undulating black line on the horizon. They were the Top Gear Hells Angels, the Dads of Anarchy, and they'd come for a day out at an elaborate, defunct bomb shelter.
The space at Kelvedon Hatch is not just for hiding from dystopia – it's also home to Rope Runners, an adventure course with zip lining and abseiling and all that sort of thing. They also use the grounds for paint balling and air soft and obstacle courses and military vehicle exhibitions. The building where the bunker is located was away from all this. An unassuming house makes a façade for the bunker, made of post-war London Stock bricks, though it looks more like a shady youth centre than a place people would actually live in. I expected to be greeted the other side of the door by a kindly old woman, sat with a till and some audio guides, ready to take my money.
But there was no one, just a big tray full of hand-held audio guides called "wands" and a small computer screen playing a video of a bearded man welcoming me to the bunker on loop. There's something quite depressing about any video loop, a never-ending message to no one in particular that may or may not be heard. The video looping in a nuclear bunker miles from anywhere does very little to diminish this effect.
Down a small set of stairs, I found this long corridor, which led into the heart of the bunker. On the walls there were crude exhibitions, including a half-full noticeboard of post cards for sale, a schematic drawing of the bunker, with its brickwork encased in a Faraday cage, and some old bicycles. There were a great many signs – too many, really – directing you, barking orders like a serif Gestapo. Go here, pay at the end, don't leave without your wand and most sinisterly of all, "We're watching you."
The bikers had begun to catch up, with all their wands and leather, so I pressed on. There was not one staff member in the entire building: no guides, no helpers. It was as if Kelvedon Hatch really had been in use once but was abandoned long ago, perhaps due to a food shortage. The minimum amount of time you're supposed to spend in here is three months. Three long months in this underground mausoleum for democratic society.
Some of the exhibits had a more conventional museum feel. In this room there was a giant model Spitfire looming over a map of the UK, the centre of which featured a hole you could push money into with a croupier's rake. It was filled with giant back-lit maps of the area and information on how central government would have dealt with the external doom of a nuclear attack. It was still quiet, but not disquieting.
This room, on the other hand, was fucking horrible. Chairs that were once in neatly uniformed lines strewn around carelessly, facing different directions. It was as if something had caused everyone in the room to exit in a panicked rush, perhaps a half-burnt man with a dripping, melted eye screaming guttural warnings of impending atomic fire at a congregation.– – –
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Again, there was a looping video, this time telling you what to do in the event of a blast. In lieu of a basement, find the room in your house furthest from the walls and roof, fill boxes and bags up with soil and wait it out. Don't look at the flash of the explosion or you'll go blind. The bikers found this all highly hilarious, cracking gags about the toxic nuclear air that would "crumble your lungs" if you breathed it in. I was terrified.
Nothing worked down in the bunker. Its decommissioning meant that everything here was for show, shut down. But it didn't feel like it had been turned off for the purpose of exhibition, it felt like it had just gone off, through neglect. It had all broken. There were papers and files marked "confidential", not in glass cases or laminated for educational purposes, but just left scattered around. I began to feel the ghosts of people that had never existed. I moved into the next room to see if there was anything in there to calm me down.
Instead I found this: a mannequin of Margaret Thatcher in a sealed off BBC radio room, her horrific, mad grinning eyes boring into my soul. Two different speakers were playing two different broadcasts simultaneously, both of men in received pronunciation demanding you stay inside and not move.
The scary authoritative voices played over and over and over, scolding you for being scalded by an impossible heat. Maggie would not burn, though. She'd be sat in that very studio, grinning, telling you to stay calm while the radiation caused you to grow a second head and a couple of extra arseholes.
As the Harley riders cackled at the mention of death, I wondered why their attitude was so cavalier towards it. Being middle aged, they're the exact people who would have been hiding under their desks if a detonation 10 miles away had shattered their school windows. Perhaps living through it and seeing the shoving match amount to nothing more than a broken wall in Germany takes the wind out of its sails. I, however, was galled by the place: its lack of people, the disarray of the exhibits, the darkness and the fucking mannequins.
Mannequins. More fucking mannequins. I began to bond with them, to understand their loneliness. I sat down with my new family, taking my place next to my new brother, Barry the Basin Head, and imagined my life in this hell, wondering if it still existed outside these damned four walls, which every day seemed to close in a little more.
We would dress up, act like we were going outside. We'd reach the edge of the bunker, giggle and push each other towards the exit, but wouldn't go through with it. We daren't. The little things made the time pass quicker. Though, how can something pass quicker if there is no visible end to it?
Old Rick looked straight at the light. Eyes fell right out like the two yolks of a broken egg. He wouldn't make it to the end of the week. But death was mercy for him.
Jokes aside, Kelvedon Hatch was great at articulating just how bleak a post-nuclear life underground would have been. It wasn't just the drabness of the interior, the inevitability of dwindling food and water supplies or the sick bay brimming with poisoned plastic families, but the prospect of nothing being left when you eventually did get out. A 360-degree panorama of wintry nothingness, death as far as the fallout would allow you to see. Ashen rain falling for seasons at a time.
It's no surprise that, on a Saturday, most people are opting for paint balling and zip lining over going three storeys into the ground to look at a load of switched off computers. The entire thing is an edifice to callous human folly, to how bad things could have been, and in many ways could still be. We're no closer to world peace, and being turned into a burnt shadow on the toilet inside your own home is up to the whims of your ghoulish betters. We don't like to be reminded of our own mortality, even less of the mortality of millions, all at once.
On the way out there was a wall of previous visitors, mostly people who'd been to Kelvedon to film for movies and TV. I wondered if Bill Bailey or Boycie from Only Fools and Horses had experienced the same existential anguish as me? Perhaps that was more one for Made In Chelsea's Ollie Locke.
It was time to leave. A light glimmered at the end of a dirty tunnel. Was I to emerge from it to discover the world had taken a turn for the worse? Would there be anything left?
There was. It was a cheeky cockerel, perched on the edge of an old bench whose paint was peeling off. It crowed defiantly every time I went near it. It was alive, and so was I, for now.