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Inside the vast nuclear bunker built to save 450 VIPs if London was hit

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It was 70 years ago that Mike Parrish’s grandfather received an unusual request. Or rather, an order. Under threat of compulsory purchase, 25 acres of his 2,000 acre estate would be bought from him by Winston Churchill’s government.

They bulldozed the hill and in its place built what now sits as an extraordinary, unsettling monument to the Cold War – a fallout bunker that could house the government if Russia hit the nuclear button. For more than 50 years, it sat there top secret, and guarded by the RAF. No one could peep over into the bungalow that would house a sprawling, 30,000 square foot underground estate to house 450 VIPs in the event of a strike on the capital.

Just a few weeks on from Vladimir Putin declaring he has put his nuclear arsenal on “special alert” (a threat, we should add, that military experts do not take particularly seriously), we went to visit Kelvedon Hatch, in Brentwood, Essex, a bizarre and unsettling symbol of the devastating force of nuclear weapons.

READ MORE:How well prepared London is in the event of a nuclear attack

Owner Mike Parrish still farms 2,000 acres of land on the site

Mike, who runs the private museum after buying it back from the government in 1994 – after the end of the Cold War – tells MyLondon the past few weeks have seen a renewed interest in the site. “It would still work in the event of a nuclear war,” he said. “So we’ve had lots of people emailing asking for space.” Sadly, they will be disappointed – Mike isn’t giving up bunker space unless forced to do so.

You enter through a nondescript bungalow, a house where the true purpose was kept secret for more than half a century through D Notices: instructions from the intelligence services for the press not to report on something that is sensitive for national security. After the government moved out in the 1990s, as the threat of nuclear attack receded, they gutted the place, Mike tells us.

He has spent nearly three decades painstakingly recreating what it would have been like before it was decommissioned. We walk through one of the tunnels designed to withstand a blast, with nooks and turns to limit damage. It is more than 100 metres long, and beneath it lies a bed of gravel to absorb any shock. Mike takes us through reinforced doors into the steel-clad heart of the complex.

The small bungalow that housed a big secret

The small bungalow that housed a big secret

What strikes me is not just the fact it exists, but that so many did. Regional seats of government (RSGs) were a major plank of Britain’s civil defence preparations against nuclear war. The now-defunct bunker in Corsham, Wiltshire, offered another potential home should Whitehall get blasted to smithereens.

But it wasn’t just central government. Every major institution had its bunkers which reported into here. The Royal Observer Corp had stations every six or seven miles, able to monitor the skies for enemy threats, and withstand attack. And not too far away, in Evesham, stood Wood Norton Hall: the Cold War bunker built to house the BBC in case of emergency. Built in 1966, it was able to be used until well into the 2000s.

We peer into the Whitehall room – with just one or two desks reserved per government department. Next door lie the PM’s private room and that of two ministers or commissioners. The hundreds of other residents would be in bunks, for up to three months in the aftermath of an attack.

This place had everything. Sewage treatment. Air filtration for nuclear particles. A canteen, its own hospital ward, and its own water and electricity supplies via generators and a bore hole. It even had its own communication network, a “chicken wire” or ticker-tape system linking dozens of core government bunkers spread across the UK via underground cables.

Margaret Thatcher

Haunting in every way

It feels slightly unreal until we learn that Margaret Thatcher herself visited the site, Mike says, and she is well represented in the busts of the former PM dotted around the site – including the emergency broadcasting room. The site’s links to London are – or at least were – extensive. The Tube’s Central line ran to Ongar, just three miles away, until 1994. That happens to be the year that the government decommissioned Kelvedon Hatch nuclear bunker.

Mike senses that his museum is still kept on the back burner in case the worst should happen. “We have fibre optic broadband, and our phone lines are fixed remarkably quickly” in what is a rural farming area. He still claims to receive letters from those high up – but won’t divulge more information. Of course, it all adds to the intrigue for the apocalyptic tourists among us. Perhaps they are just asking for civil service discounts to visit.

The air filtration room

The air filtration room had a vital role in the event of nuclear contamination

The bunker owner has had a flurry of media interest too, speaking to us shortly after Channel 4’s Jon Snow visits ahead of a new documentary on nuclear threats airing this weekend. Does Putin’s rhetoric keep him up at night? “What can I do about nuclear risks? Nothing. You’d be underground for three to six months,” he explained.

In the information book for the museum, Mike sets out the stakes involved in any nuclear strike. “There would be temperatures of minus 20 to minus 40 degrees. There’d be no harvest for at least three years…By the third harvest you’d have to scrape away three or four inches of contaminated soil and sow by hand any seeds that you hadn’t already eaten.”

“All this time you’d be contending with marauding gangs of people who have radiation sickness.” A collapse in law and order would take the country back to pre-mediaeval times. “Einstein summed it up very well when he said that if the next war is fought with the atom bomb, the one after that will be fought with bows and arrows,” Mike writes.

I’ve been to Chernobyl, and both there and in 30 metres below ground in this nuclear bunker, I felt a similar sense of unease. There is the macabre sense of wonder at this feat of disaster planning, constructed in just seven months. And there is also that small but niggling grain of fear.

Let’s hope Mike’s bunker remains a museum forever. Only when you see a compulsory purchase order for his farmland should we start panicking.

Josiah joined MyLondon as the outlet’s first City Hall Editor in October 2021, reporting on the Mayor, the London Assembly, the Met police, Transport for London, and wider London politics.

He moved to South London from Brussels in 2015, working in communications for the Electoral Reform Society, and covering Westminster politics as a freelance journalist. Originally from Cornwall, he is now also a proud Londoner. Josiah has appeared on BBC Radio 4, Times Radio, LBC and other outlets to discuss current affairs and general political chaos.

If you have an untold story – whether it’s a housing nightmare, an unfair decision or a local scandal, get in touch at [email protected] or contact Josiah on Twitter.

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