Thursday, 22 July 2010
Armageddon in Kelvedon Hatch
Why was Margaret Thatcher planning to take to her bunker in Essex?
Kelvedon Hatch in the afternoon appears to be a town bereft of inhabitants. We get off the 501 bus from Brentwood and walk up the A128. No shops, no children, it could be an episode of The Survivors. Finally we find a man gardening by his bungalow.
“Excuse me, do you know where the Secret Nuclear Bunker is?”
“It’s down that way on the left, but it’s a long old walk… ,” he says of the not-so-secret bunker, with the bemused look of a man who has never before seen a man and two children attempting to access a nuclear bunker via public transport. And it doesn’t look like he expects us to return.
The pavement soon disappears. It looks like a nuclear strike has already hit Essex. The verges, hedges and ditches of the A128 are full of shattered plastic mineral water and Coca-Cola bottles and rusting lager cans.
Eventually we come across a bunker sign pointing to a long track winding track heading across a ploughed field. There’s just a grassy hill in the distance with a mysterious mast perched on its top.
It feels like a real adventure, a trek into the unknown regions of both history and Essex. The track descends into a gulley where there’s a sentry box and a paintballing shed. We walk on past a stream and wood, post-apocalyptic paintballers scaling ropes in the trees, and eventually find a car park and a path to a suburban bungalow on the side of the hill.
Eerily there are no staff on duty, just hand-held audio guides in a rack. We enter to the left of the bungalow and find it’s a huge steel corridor with bunker plans and Geiger counters hanging on the walls.
It’s square and featureless and designed to defend the government from civilians if they tried to storm the bunker to escape the radiation and perhaps query their MPs’ expenses.
There’s an Armageddon time soundtrack on the public address system; four-minute warning wailing sirens and calls for Captain Palmer to head to the operations room.
Then we move through blast doors that are the weight of four cars each and descend further down to the depths.
We’re 100 feet underground and encased in ten feet of reinforced concrete. The bunker was built in 1953 and decommissioned in 1993 as it cost £3 million a year to run. The family who owned the land, the Parrishes, bought the bunker and now run it as a tourist attraction. The ideal place to fall out with the kids.
There’s no natural light and only circular vents in the ceiling to circulate the air.
We enter the communications area where 1950s switchboards give way to ancient telex machines.
“This is cool! Everything’s grey. These are so old. What are these?” says 11-year-old Lola, banging the keys of a Telex machine.
A uniformed female dummy sits in the incoming messages booth. The bog-roll like print-outs list innocuous towns like Aberystwyth and Luton. Here the 300 self-appointed survivors of a nuclear holocaust would search for signs of life in other bunkers around the blighted landscape.
Panic pervades our party. Static crackles in the scientists’ centre where the fall-out patterns would have been monitored. Red phones stand in a box on the wall.
““I want to leave, I'm scared!” says nine-year-old Nell.
And so am I. It nearly happened. It still could.
STAND UP MARGARET
In the BBC Studio a dummy of Margaret Thatcher stands headphones-on ready to talk to the shell of a nation.
Lights flash on machines and everywhere there’s great big clunking boxes with dials on them. It all feels like 1970s Doctor Who. The dummies look like Autons and there are gas masks on the walls. It would be no surprise to find Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart and his chaps from UNIT here, trying to maintain discipline and lay on a cup of instant coffee in an impossible situation. Jon Pertwee’s Doctor would be shaking his head at humanity’s folly.
We move up a flight of stairs to the “floor”, where there’s a map of Britain complete with pointers for military planning.
PROTECT AND SURVIVE
The children watch a TV playing Protect and Survive. It’s the best CND recruitment video ever. Everyone must stay in their improvised house shelter for 14 days with water and tinned food. The sections on placing your toilet waste in a plastic bag and storing it in a larger bucket fascinate Lola and Nell. “If someone dies wrap the body in plastic or blankets and move it to a separate room,” says the keep calm and carry on voiceover.
We see the giant grey tanks and pipes of the plant room where the life support systems supplied water and pumped filtered air around the bunker.
It’s up another flight of stairs to the sick bay where a dummy lies with a bloody eye. “Look there’s a coffin!” says Nell.
It’s the most surreal kids’ day out ever. We see the bunks where staff would have “hot-bedded” in the dormitory and a large room full of ancient computers that would have been the devolved central government. Although now it’s staffed by dummies with no legs and flapping white sleeves. A sign says “Justice” on the walls. And the controller of this bunker really would have had the power of life and death.
We find our house in the giant laminated map of London on the wall. And in the Gents piped music pays “You Can’t Hurry Love.” Weird. The children try on gas masks and army uniforms in a dressing-up area.
And then it’s up to the canteen where the smell of institutionalized food from stainless steel ovens evokes just how awful the post-nuclear bunker would have felt. And a sign reads that the food may contain nuts, which seems the last thing to worry about after the invisible death cloud arrives. I’m tempted to ask if they do irradiated food.
And finally we find two staff alive behind the counter, although everything has to be paid for in the honesty box.
We admire the nuclear bunker mugs, postcards and pencils and rubber toys beneath the grey tomb-like beams.
“Are these dead?” asks an elderly retainer picking up our coffee mugs and cans. No, but everyone outside is.
And then we take the final exit, walking down a long arced tunnel that finally emerges at a small camouflaged opening in the side of the hill.
Daylight at last. And thankfully there’s no sign of fall out.