This once secret nuclear bunker is the deepest and largest bunker in the south east of England; originally built for air defence but turned into a regional government headquarters as the Cold War progressed. Now open to visitors as a museum, Sarah and her son visited this February as they were travelling through Essex.
The guardhouse and entrance to the bunker is disguised as a farm cottage.
In the 1950s, as World War II slowly transformed into the Cold War, a large area of farmland was requisitioned from the Parrish family near Brentwood in Essex. The bunker was constructed in 1952 at a cost of £1,500,000, by the Air Ministry as a SOC – Special Operations Centre, which is an air defence station. Sitting on a gravel bed which would act as a shock absorber in the event of an attack, the bunkers walls are 10ft of reinforced concrete surrounded by a Faraday cage. It descends125 feet underground and consists of three storeys, with water tanks holding 24000 gallons of water above the bunker, albeit still underground.
For a brief period in the 1960s the bunker became a RSG – Regional Seat of Government and as the Cold War heated up, it became a Regional Government HeadQuarters (RGHQ), the government spending £10,000,000 to transform it so it could house 600 people for three months, a mixture of government, military and civilian personnel, all tasked with continuing government operations and the survival of the population. The bunker was decommissioned in the 1990s as the threat of nuclear attack passed with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the Parish family bought back their land, opening the bunker as a museum.
The mast above ground held 120 telephone lines which fed down to the Home Office Radio Room below ground.
A sketch of the bunker’s design and layout.
It amused me very much to see road signs pointing to a ‘Secret Nuclear Bunker’, although the joke wore off a little as I got rather lost, my sat nav confused that I was looking for a field rather than a sensible main road. We got there in the end however, following a narrow, windy track into a bumpy field. Parking seemed to be rather random, just leave your car in the field, but as we got out we could hear excited voices in the woods nearby, where a high ropes course seemed to be providing much entertainment for families.
Signs point the way through the woods.
We followed the homemade signage to the secret bunker, past metal sheds packed with eclectic assortments of old military vehicles, metal scraps and random junk. A tank rotting quietly under a canvas tent, collapsed damp fences and upturned signs bore witness to the recent storms that have been ransacking Britain. Around the corner materialized a small brick guardhouse, flanked by two greening, musty missiles looking very old and benign. These small bungalows were often how the military would hide entrances to secret bunkers; intended to look like small farm cottages and surrounded by trees to provide air cover, they would act as the main entrance where visitors could be vetted by the guards before descending to the depths below.
An exuberance of signage marks the entrance to the bunker.
You walk up the uneven steps to the entrance, where you are bombarded with homemade signs, barking out orders in a clamour of confusing advice. One sign said that they don’t take cards, just cash only, so it was back to the car to collect money and then back through the rain to the guardhouse again. Other signs tell you that you pay as you leave, that there is a £5 charge for being able to take photos, and that you must buy a permit in advance from the cafe to be able to take the photos. More signs tell you that you are on camera, ‘we are watching you’, so they’ll know exactly what you are doing. Having already had to trudge back to the car for cash, I wasn’t keen to start hunting around for the cafe, so I resolved to pay for my photo permit at the end.
We stepped inside where I was all prepared to explain my lack of photo permit to the person behind the desk, but all there was was a video playing on continuous loop, instructing us to pick up ‘wands’ to take with us. These wands are audio guides, which my son decided he didn’t want to carry around with him. As we progressed a few feet down the tunnel, there were more signs, ‘you must have a wand, it is not optional, go back and get one’, and he scuttled back to get one, looking nervously at the cameras on the wall as he did so.
More signage – some from the bunker’s previous incarnation and the more modern, but no less imperious, from the museum.
We progressed down a long tunnel, 120m long, which had metal bed frames attached to the wall, a couple of old bicycles, ripped Health & Safety posters from 1963 and some random lead piping. Just what were we walking into? A 90 degree bend in the tunnel was there to reduce blast pressure and to help with defence. A small, darkened office filled with old technology and a corkboard covered with postcards declared itself to be the radio room, which had been staffed 24 hours a day, and the thought of spending time in that dark, dingy cupboard seemed infinitely depressing, the postcards and cheery looking map doing nothing to mitigate the gloom.
The tiny and cheerless radio room.
We pressed on, my son clutching his wand like a talisman as we passed the cameras, following the white arrows marked on the floor as we headed deeper underground, past a weapons store with a uniformed mannequin wielding a machete and pointing a gun at us, past huge generators covered with buttons and dials, through steel blast doors and concrete corridors. There were more homemade signs shouting ‘Danger!’ at us, as well as signs from the Cold War era telling us to be on our guard, to not share careless talk and to use water sparingly.
A uniformed mannequin with shades and a floppy hat still manages to look threatening amongst all of the weaponry.
We found ourselves wandering through a network of rooms, with banks of machines, teleprinters, faxes on desks, scraps of paper in trays, chairs pushed back as if the occupant had just stepped away for a minute. There were endless rows of wires and outdated machinery, with recordings playing from some unknown source providing the rattle of printers, phones ringing or radio broadcasts shouting out instructions and providing disembodied commentaries.
Chairs pushed back, maps and posters on the wall all make this a fascinating trip back in time.
A radio broadcast booth which would have been used the BBC Radio Room has a sinister mannequin of Margaret Thatcher with big, plastic hair behind the glass, lit up under an anglepoise spotlight and surrounded by banks of buttons, switches, dials and wires. Doorways led to large rooms filled with more technology and signs, dark corners with mannequins asleep in bunk beds, illuminated green maps with their eerie light reaching out into the dimly lit spaces.
Clutching the ‘wand’ and plotting in the map room.
We hadn’t seen or heard anyone else since we had entered the bunker, and it was starting to get slightly sinister ; each time we rounded a corner there seemed to be another mannequin emerging from the shadows, making my son jump. He started looking around nervously as we got deeper and deeper. ‘Stop taking photos’ he told me, ‘the cameras are watching us and we haven’t bought a permit yet’.
Haz Mat suits casually hung on pegs add to the sinister feel of these darkened rooms without any natural light.
The lucky few commanders would have got their own bedrooms, even if they did have to share it with their office.
Several rooms had smaller rooms leading off them, in which a film would be playing, projected onto the bare wall; crackly films over 30 years old that told us what to do in the event of a nuclear attack, how we could protect ourselves, what the sirens would sound like. My son asked, ‘where you really all that scared, was it that real?’ and I tried to explain about life in the 1980s when nuclear attack was what we all worried about and how it was such an important issue. Although it seems like worrying over nothing now, people aren’t blessed with the benefit of hindsight and that just like the Y2K issue 20 years ago, these things matter at the time but seem a bit asinine years later. He looked dubious and we ploughed on.
‘Come on, stop taking pictures, it says way out’.
A walk through the plant room that kept them all alive was dark and foreboding, with smells of oil and the the loud whirring of fans filling the air. It led us to a staircase and we went up a floor; I was being dragged along by my son who had seen a sign saying ‘way out’ – ‘come on, it’s scary’ he chided me. We ignored the signs telling us that if we hadn’t listened to the audio guide section about blast doors we were going too quickly; I had long since abandoned my audio guide as I found it to be too quiet, too fast to understand clearly and I was enjoying the sense of exploration without it.
The open plan Admin Office provides a real glimpse into the past.
We entered a large, dark room filled with desks and old computers; this was the main Administration Floor where civil servants would have been based to coordinate the survival programme and communicate with other bunkers. More mannequins, some wearing gas masks, one looking like Judge Dredd in riot gear, and more desks covered in notebooks, telephones, chairs slightly pushed back, with the gloom stretching away from us, punctuated by the odd desk lamp.
The stationery store still holds its original supplies.
There was a supply room filled with old stationery supplies and piles of geiger counters against a wall, a desk in front of them that presumably once belonged to the Quartermaster or his civilian equivalent, ruling over his small kingdom of assets. Rumour had it that staff were expected to return the stub of their pencil before they would be issued with another.
Sick bay and coffins show some of the grim realities of what was expected.
The white arrows then led us into sick bay, with more mannequins, some in scrubs, some on the operating table with bandages and canulas of dried blood, as in the bunkers incarnation as RGHQ, it had been a sick bay and a morgue. Before that, the area was used for battery storage.
There were cardboard coffins and ones made of Mdf, just propped against the wall, an ignominious end for those of us who hadn’t been vapourised. Dark dormitories filled with iron bunks and bare mattresses even made me think twice about walking in them, my son undecided between not entering the scary looking room or being left alone – he came with me in the end.
A dark, cramped dormitory with threadbare blankets on utility metal bunkbeds did not look like a comfortable place for staff to have to sleep.
Finally we reached the cafe, which was totally deserted, no staff, no diners, the kitchen area behind the till was deserted. More signs told us to leave our wands by the till and to pay in the honesty box, which I did, including for my photo permit, and treated us to some drinks and well deserved chocolate too.
We took our supplies with us as I got dragged along, ‘come on, come on’, as we saw some glimmers of daylight, and at the end of a long corrugated tunnel, we saw the patch of light, with vivid green ivy and creepers hanging down. He practically ran out of there and we emerged into pale, watery sunshine.
The light at the end of the tunnel looks far more dramatic as you leave the bunker; the exit is barely visible from the outside.
Returning to the car field, the excited screams from the high ropes climbers had all gone, there were no cars left in the car park, just ours. Where had everyone gone? Had we emerged into a post apocalyptic world after our time underground, what had happened in the timeless time we had been in the bunker? The feeling of unease and disquiet remained until we drove back up that puddly, winding track and onto the main road, where cars were driving along as if nothing had changed. We had rejoined the human race.
Where is everybody? The high ropes course was deserted, just showing the signs of storm damage. At least it wasn’t covered in a nuclear fallout or topped by a mushroom cloud.
I have to say that although my son found the whole experience slightly terrifying, I really enjoyed it. I have a soft spot for private museums that haven’t been over curated: I love that it looked as if it had just been left as it was, that scraps of paper were still on desks, that there were few glass display cases surrounding the artefacts, as it makes the whole experience so much more authentic. It may have been slightly chaotic and arbitrary, but that just made it more immediate and more realistic. It took me straight back to the 1980s and vividly brought back the whole nuclear fear we lived through. My son learnt a lot from the visit and although he had been a bit unnerved as we got deeper underground and realised we were totally alone, we had visited on a rainy week day in February and it probably gets busier and has more visitors at weekends and in the warmer months.
If you find yourself driving through Essex, this bunker is well worth a visit. The Kelvedon Hatch Secret Nuclear Bunker is one of a small number of surviving Cold War and World War II bunkers now open to the public.
Visiting Kelvedon Hatch Secret Nuclear Bunker
1st March – 31st October
Weekdays: 10h00 – 16h00
Weekends: 10h00 – 17h00
1st November – end February
Thursday – Sunday: 10h00 – 16h00 as well as school holidays
Children (5 -16) £5.50
Free parking, cafe, picnic benches
Tips for Visiting Kelvedon Hatch Nuclear Bunker
Take cash as they don’t accept cards.
Don’t be put off by the slightly intimidating signage at the beginning, I think its bark is worse than its bite.
Warn kids in advance of what to expect.