Bunker mentality

With “Australia” emblazoned across his T-shirt (it’s a clue to where he comes from), Larry Zanker is well into his three-month Grand Tour of the UK.

English Heritage hopes to attract 10,000 visitors this year to view Yorks Cold War bunker; an exhibition will commemorate the 70th anniversary of the atom bomb. Pictures: Tom Arber
English Heritage hopes to attract 10,000 visitors this year to view Yorks Cold War bunker; an exhibition will commemorate the 70th anniversary of the atom bomb. Pictures: Tom Arber

Today he has reached York. He’s got the Minster and the National Railway Museum pencilled in for later, but first he’s come to see a nuclear bunker a mile or so from the city centre. Why?

“Well, mentally I’m all castled out,” he says. “And I’ve got a great interest in technology and wanted to see what it was like here at the height of the Cold War.”

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He’s in the right place at the right time. This summer sees the 70th anniversary of the birth of the atomic age. It was a major factor in the Cold War, the state of military and political tension between Western and Eastern bloc countries that lasted for decades after the Second World War.

The focus of the Cold War Bunker is the Operations Room, an atmospheric place ringed by a high gallery. After the Cuban Missile Crisis, it hosted regular rehearsals of nuclear attacks

In August 1945 the USA dropped an atom bomb, ironically codenamed Little Boy, on Hiroshima, to devastating effect. Three days later, it followed it up with another bomb, Fat Man, at Nagasaki. The bombings led to the Japanese surrender, on August 15. It hastened the end of the war, but left a legacy of global fear and suspicion.

That legacy is explored at the York Cold War Bunker, one of English Heritage’s more enigmatic, more “alternative” properties.

Sited just off the Acomb Road, it was the Yorkshire headquarters for government monitoring of potential nuclear attacks. It’s a curious structure to find in the middle of a housing estate – brutally angular, made of reinforced concrete, painted dark green and rearing out of a grassy bank.

“It’s on a road called Monument Close,” English Heritage’s site manager Rachael Bowers points out. “But I don’t know if it’s the sort of monument people are expecting.”

When the Cold War Bunker reopened as a tourist attraction in 1991, it still had much of its original equipment.

It certainly took householder Rachel Craven by surprise when she signed up for an apartment just across the road. “I thought at first it was a power station; I didn’t realise it was a bunker,” she says. “It’s a bit weird: you get loads of tourists in the car park.”

Last year, some 6,500 of them turned up for guided tours and, in this nuclear anniversary year, EH are hoping for 10,000. “We get a lot of visitors saying ‘I wasn’t expecting to enjoy this’,” says Bowers. “But they’re often the ones who ask all the questions at the end.”

The bunker opened in 1961 at a time when the West was obsessed by the threat of nuclear attack by the Soviet Union. It was just a year before the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the USA almost went to war over Soviet missile launch sites established in Cuba, just 90 miles from US shores. It was one of 25 supposedly semi-secret bunkers across the country. They were designed to house scientists and Royal Observer Corps volunteers – as many as 60 people all told – for up to 30 days in the event of a nuclear crisis.

They weren’t intended for the great, the good, and the influential, for politicians or military personnel. “It was about collecting and analysing data for the people making the decisions,”says Kevin Booth, senior curator at English Heritage.

By today's standards, the technology in York's Cold War Bunker may look basic, but it was the Yorkshire headquarters for government monitoring of potential nuclear attacks.

With 3ft thick walls, the York bunker was built to withstand a two megaton bomb dropped up to eight miles away. That’s around 100 times more powerful than the Nagasaki bomb.

“At the end of the 30 days, they would let themselves out to see what was left outside,” says Bowers. The prognosis wasn’t good.

A specially made introductory film shown on tours fills in the background. It includes harrowing footage of some of the 70,000 people (some say 140,000) who died at Hiroshima and the many more who were grotesquely injured. The film counters cynicism about the British government’s apparently well-meaning but sometimes naïve, sometimes panic-inducing, information films and the widely ridiculed Protect and Survive booklet it issued in 1980.

The booklet urged people to build their own “nuclear shelters”...find some old doors, prop them against the living room wall and hide snugly inside until the crisis passes and it’s time to water the plants.

At a time of high-profile nuclear protest, through CND and the Greenham Common peace camp, this Dad’s Armyish scenario was lampooned in Raymond Briggs’ poignant 1982 graphic novel When the Wind Blows (subsequently a play and film).

In peacetime, the York bunker was manned by three permanent staff, though many more took part in training exercises. Finally, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, nuclear tension decreased, and it closed in 1991. Its condition deteriorated, with rust, mould and fungus, until English Heritage acquired it in 2000, restored it and opened it to the public.

It still had much of its original equipment. “We didn’t have to work hard to make it seem authentic,” says Booth. “It already was authentic.”

Thankfully, English Heritage has avoided hyping it up. The bunker is presented “straight”, with none of the fake drama, uniformed dummies and wailing sirens favoured by some other bunkers that open to the public. Like Doctor Who’s Tardis, it’s far bigger inside than it looks from outside. There are three floors, the middle one at ground level, the lowest underground.

Bowers and Booth guide me round a network of corridors linking the canteen, the bunk-bedded dormitories (“not dissimilar to a Youth Hostel,” one visitor remarks) and the kitchen. It boasts a four-hob electric cooker, a toaster, a lot of vintage Formica and a bright red plastic Sixties tomato sauce dispenser. It looks really quite homely.

The focus is the Operations Room, an atmospheric place ringed by a high gallery. After the Cuban Missile Crisis, it hosted regular “rehearsals” of nuclear attacks. Volunteers up in the gallery followed the grim story supposedly unfolding outside, relaying information coming in from 40 monitoring posts across Yorkshire.

Booth demonstrates the now quaint-seeming procedure. Paper chits were filled in as news came through from Northallerton, Bridlington and Grassington, Keighley, Beverley and Pocklington. The volunteers alerted the scientists down in the well of the room by banging wooden sticks on the balcony.

With teleprinters clattering, explosions were plotted on maps and screens (during my visit, a screen suggests a bomb has dropped near Thirsk) and the information was passed up the chain of command. A transistor radio was tuned to the BBC Home Service, later Radio 4, for important announcements.

And every 12 hours someone popped outside (dodging radioactive fall-out) with a “ground zero indicator”, a pin-hole camera that calculated the location of explosions. One is on display. It looks like a 1940s bread bin.

“All the people here signed the Official Secrets Act,” says Bowers. “But the government wanted the public to know places like this existed, so they’d feel reassured.”

And Larry Zanker’s conclusion after his tour? “Both sides in the Cold War knew they both had nuclear weapons, so they would have done nothing with them; it was sabre-rattling,” he says, and sets off for the Minster.

York Cold War Bunker, Monument Close, off Acomb Road, York. Open Wednesday to Sunday (10am to 6pm) until September 30, then more limited opening until Easter. Admission (£6.80, with concessions) for guided tours only (no need to book). Information on 01904 646940 (www.english-heritage.org.uk).

The bunker is marking the nuclear anniversary with a season of films (until September 19) and Standby for the New Stone Age, an exhibition (closing tomorrow) by the artist Michael Mulvihill.