I want to start off with this picture, which was taken after the bunker, to reassure you all. As you read down, you might become a little unnerved, a little claustrophobic if you tend that way. So here is the antidote, before you go down into the dark reaches of cold war paranoia. Up above ground, it is Spring, and you will be there again, just take a deep breath now, before we go in.
This is the building that disguises the entrance to the bunker. It’s mostly a gift shop, full of crystals and ice cream and lolly pops for sale. Statues of Buddha are all around, little Buddhist prayer-cards, I think, tacked to the wall. D’s stepmother asked about all this, and the man behind the counter said the owners wanted to work to dispel some of the negativity of the below-ground area. If they had said this before we’d gone in, perhaps we’d have laughed, but although I don’t believe in the healing power of stones, I can understand the impulse here, just something held up in shield, however futile.
You pay your nine pound or so entry fee. You go through the ricketting gate.
Down a set of steps, down a long, green-lit corridor that turns on itself, the air cold and musty.
The recorded tour guide tells you that if anyone died in the bunker after a nuclear attack, their body would be wrapped in a sheet, placed in a cardboard coffin, and pushed outside the doors, left there with the tens of millions of other corpses killed in the explosion, firestorm and fallout. This is in fact, the introductory speech as you descend.
As you walk down further, you come to a set of rooms, A guardhouse, a monitoring station, and two 1 1/2 tonne blast doors in red steel. You have reached the upper parts of the bunker. If you are not meant to be here, the guards can shoot you. The bunker was in peak activity in the mid nineteen fifties, when secrecy and fear were the order of the day.
Once beyond the blast doors, you come to what looks like an ugly office building. Linoleum lined corridors lit in a less unnerving yellow. Now only some of the rooms have that greenish, underwater feel to them:
On this, the first level of the bunker proper, there is also a cafe for visitors:
Bunting is cheerful. Posters on the wall advertise for Land Girls (an alternative option to working in a munitions factory, which was to farm the land in order to make up for the deficit of food from overseas) and for the RAF.
But there is also the old doctor’s office, equipped to treat all kinds of injuries, from bumps and scrapes to the blistering caused by a hundred-mile-an-hour radioactive wind.
Moving swiftly on, you reach the cinema, which is showing two films. One on protecting your family unit. A man with a classic RP accent guides you through all the steps you need to take. Sand bag your windows, it will stop the radiation. Create a little store of food, turn one of the rooms of your house into a shelter and further secure it with sandbags, possibly brick up the windows in advance of any trouble.
He is relentlessly sincere. He is lying to you. Nothing you do will be of any good. But they had to say something to hold off hysteria. No need to have the police on horseback sent in.
You go into the second cinema, where they are showing a black and white documentary-style presentation describing what would happen to the bewildered populace in the event of the explosion. It undermines everything our sincere friend has said. The actors, particularly the children, are quite convincing as they wail, covered in burns, blinded by the flash, helplessly covered in radioactive ash.
You leave the room.
Corridors long and dark, the nightmare corridors that appear in dreams, leading you on and on.
One of the telephone workers seems to have noticed your entrance.
This mannequin represents the Secretary of State for Scotland. He, in the event of a nuclear war, would have governed the country from this room. He -whoever he had been at the time – would have been granted the power of life and death. One of the orders providing for governance was that martial law would be in effect. Policing, rather than ambulance and aid services would have been the order of the day, and because resources were expected to be short, the idea was that the injured should be shot. The injured, the elderly, the ill of health, the mentally ill were all to be ‘terminated’.
This is the man in charge. He seems to have been drinking. Wouldn’t you?
Though there are rooms and rooms left to see, this will be the last stop on the tour. I expect you are quite keen to leave at this point. These brightly coloured shells line the wall. As do assault rifes, uzis, information sheets on nuclear bombs.
The audioguide has one last thing to tell you. This is the armoury, the most high-security room in the base. Volunteers were not allowed access. As you can imagine, with all these weapons around. But that was not the only reason. This room contained something else: a store of cyanide pills. If, after an attack had occurred and some time gone by, and the occupants of the bunker had gone above ground, and found nothing remained for them, no world left of any livability, then they had a way out. Or, more likely the voice says, reassuringly in your ear, if the tunnels leading to the surface had been damaged in the attack and were impassible, then there was no need to wait out the dwindling of the food supply or air.
You leave this room too. You wander up towards the staircase, towards the upward sloping green-lit corridor, past the blast doors and the checkpoint, up the second set of staircases, into the gift shop, out, out into the car park to look at the tanks and the missiles on the lawn, and beyond them, to the green field and the blue, warless sky above. And you breathe. And this was never your world, and you thank God for it.