BRITAIN\'S SUBTERRANEAN COLD WAR LEGACY

FEW may even realise it, but beneath our feet lays the evidence of five decades of political paranoia. Deep underground, in towns and cities across the UK, are bunkers built at vast expense during the Cold War to protect selected civil leaders and key workers in the event of a nuclear strike.

FEW may even realise it, but beneath our feet lays the evidence of five decades of political paranoia. Deep underground, in towns and cities across the UK, are bunkers built at vast expense during the Cold War to protect selected civil leaders and key workers in the event of a nuclear strike. Dozens of these chambers, ranging from major military installations and communications networks to tiny air monitoring stations, were secretly dug across the country during and after the Second World War – with some being completed even after the Iron Curtain fell in the early 1990s. For years they remained shrouded in secrecy – their existence known just to the authorities and a handful of enthusiasts – but interest is now growing, thanks to the internet. A new phenomenon known as “urban exploring” has developed, where members of the public visit mysterious and forbidden sites and post their details on web forums, with bunkers and other subterranean installations becoming a focus of their attentions. Bunkers were built in every corner of Britain, from the major conurbations of London and Birmingham to small towns in Cumbria and Wales, often under buildings but sometimes in secluded, woodland areas. Many are now derelict and on private land, so unauthorised access is not permitted. A few are still used as local authority emergency centres while others have been demolished. Attempting to gain access to military sites is both illegal and dangerous, and several people have died doing so over the years. The installations, which featured food stores, dormitories, recreation facilities, decontamination units and heavy blast-proof doors, would have sheltered council workers, politicians, and staff from utility companies from radiation, giving the country a chance to recover its services should the unimaginable occur. There was, however, no such luck for members of the public, who would have had to take their chances among the fall-out. Under secret plans, one bunker, Hack Green in Cheshire, would have become the seat of regional government for the North West of England, with similar set-ups across the UK. Now a Cold War museum, the site played a central role in the national defence strategy over six decades, from its wartime beginnings as an RAF radar station to its conversion, in the ‘70s, to a bunker capable of shielding 135 civil servants and military personnel from a sustained nuclear strike. At a cost of some £32m, the facility was equipped with its own generating plant, air conditioning and life support, radiation filter rooms, emergency water supply and necessary support services but did not become operational until 1984. Just five years later, the Soviet Union began to crumble. Others, albeit smaller, were secretly built everywhere from Belfast to Exeter and Dundee – while unsuspecting residents went about their daily business metres above. In Manchester, a series of tunnels known as the Guardian Telephone Exchange runs 200ft below most of the city centre and is still used as a secure cable route. It was only when fire broke out within the tunnels in 2004, cutting off 130,000 telephone lines that locals learned about the complex, which was built in the 1950s. Constructed to withstand a Hiroshima-sized atom bomb, the system features numerous access points and ventilator shafts, and would have ensured essential communications links were preserved – even if the city itself had been destroyed. Had Armageddon occurred, the entrance would be blocked with a 35-tonne concrete slab, and staff kept sustained and entertained for up to six weeks by stores of food, a well, fuel tanks, a piano, pool table and artificial windows. Nick Catford, of Cold War enthusiasts group Subterranea Britannica, which scours records offices for information about the sites and has visited dozens up and down the country, said: “There are thousands of these things in Britain, but a lot of people just don’t seem to know about them. The strange thing is that they were still being built after the Cold War ended because it was cheaper for the authorities to complete them than to pay a penalty to cancel the contract.” Dr Ronald Barr, head of history at the University of Chester, said the bunkers’ existence showed the level of paranoia which had taken hold during the Cold War. “The authorities were preparing for the worst by building bunkers everywhere. People were only just coming to terms with what the effects of radiation could be after World War Two. “There was real fear about what would happen, should the Soviet Union attack, and many believed Britain could be right in the firing line,” he said. For more information, visit www.subbrit.org.uk and www.28dayslater.co.uk