Above: The bungalow (once guardhouse) that visitors must enter to begin their tour of the bunker. Photo: Laura Felton-Hustwitt
Visit us now while you still can.
Ominous words to greet any keen visitor arriving for a day out. This is the welcome we received when approaching the entrance to Kelvedon Hatch Secret Nuclear Bunker. Nestled into a secluded wooded area just outside Brentwood in Essex, UK, this intriguing sign sets up an eerie atmosphere which is continued throughout the bunker. A lone bungalow is the only evidence above ground of what lies beneath, and this is where our journey down into the nuclear bunker begins.
One of the most unique things about the site is that it is unmanned. As we enter through the front door of the bungalow, once used as the bunker’s guardhouse, signs instruct us to take an audio guide, with separate guides for adults and children. Visitors are firmly told (via stern signs) that taking photos inside is forbidden unless you have paid for a permit. Although initially a little disappointed at this, as I walked around it proved a welcome change to be able to enjoy the experience in the moment and not be glued to my phone camera!
Armed with our audio guides, we make our way down into the long echoey entrance corridor. The nuclear bunker is a labyrinth of narrow concrete passageways, leading to both residential and work rooms containing telephones, broadcasting equipment, maps and typewriters. There’s that familiar musty smell of dusty machinery and browning papers, and before we know it, we are warped back in time to Cold War Britain.
Listening to our guides, we learn that the bunker was created by Churchill’s government in 1952 in fearful response to the Soviet Union acquiring the atom bomb and hydrogen bomb in 1948 and 1953 respectively. The site was chosen by the Ministry of Supply for being secluded, hilly and surrounded by woodland, the ideal environment to construct a bunker relatively unnoticed. Measuring at about 27,000 square foot spread over three levels, the bunker is big enough to house 600 so-called ‘key’ people, including the Prime Minister, for three to four months in the event of a nuclear attack. These ‘key’ people would have been scientists, civil servants and government officials, and from their underground safety would have charted the scale of nuclear attack, used the BBC studio to broadcast warnings and advice to civilians above ground, and made decisions as to what to do next. Luckily, the effectiveness of the nuclear bunker never needed to be tested. Armed guards patrolled the bunker right up until 1992, when it was deemed too expensive and unnecessary to keep going and so was decommissioned. Sold at auction to a descendent of the Parrish family, whose land it was originally built on, it has remained both privately owned and somewhat unchanged ever since. The bunker feels like it was left in a hurry, with papers scattered about desks, but this wasn’t strictly the case. Much of the original contents were sold, and the current owner filled the bunker himself. Mannequins sit at desks in place of workers, a particularly humorous feature being a creepy figure of Margaret Thatcher preparing to broadcast to the country in the radio studio. It’s certainly effective though, and we surely get the impression that things could easily be picked back up and spring into action.
One of the most interesting rooms contains a rotation of the 1980s infomercial ‘Protect and Survive’, designed to be broadcast when a nuclear attack was imminent. The dystopian nuclear survival guide was also published in pamphlet form, and gives advice on things such as how to store clean water, and what each unique publicly sounding siren meant. The videos are chilling, from the forceful theme tune, to the seemingly futile advice. If you’re unable to visit the bunker, I’d certainly recommend watching ‘Protect and Survive’ online to get a feel of the atmosphere the site emits.
As we reach the end of our tour, we realise that we are yet to pay for our visit. We enter the gift shop and cafe having barely seen a soul save for a few other visitors, and even now there is just one lady in an apron working in the canteen style kitchen. The cafe has basic food but plenty to satisfy hungry visitors; sandwiches, soups and hot drinks: self-serve but pre-prepared by the kitchen staff. The gift shop is well stocked with nuclear war related memorabilia and there is a good opportunity here to buy postcards depicting the bunker’s interior to make up for the no photo rule.
The payment method for these things is unusual. The site uses the trusting system of an honesty box. On entering the gift shop, visitors are met with a drop box for their audio guides, along with a money box and request to leave payment for the visit and anything bought in the shop and cafe. This of course means that it is only possible to pay with cash, an important point to note before making a visit.
Exiting the bunker through a man-made tunnel, we are abruptly back in the modern day sunshine. Our senses suddenly overwhelmed with the life around us; the birds singing in the trees, the smell of the grass, the wiz of the cars on the nearby road, puts the contents of the bunker into perspective; a bunker built in anticipation of these signs of life being destroyed. Let’s hope it is not a case of visiting ‘while we still can’, but a museum for families to enjoy and learn about for many years to come.
Admission prices are fairly cheap for a visit where you can see and learn a lot! The bunker website states that it takes about an hour to an hour and a half to complete the audio tour, but this can stretch to up to four hours if all the extra videos are watched and dress-up opportunities are taken along the way. Adult tickets are £8.50 and children aged 5-16 cost £6.50. There is also the option to pay the reduced cost of £20 for two adults and two children.
Once England’s current nationwide lockdown is over, the bunker is expected to reopen following social distancing rules. From November to February, the site is open from Thursday to Sunday 10am-4pm, plus school holidays and half term. During the summer months (March to October), it is open every day of the week 10am-4pm weekdays, and till 5pm on weekends and bank holidays.
* * *
Laura is from Southend-on-Sea in Essex, home of the world’s longest pleasure pier. She has recently moved to Oxford, where she currently works in a local school. She graduated with an MA in Public History from Royal Holloway, University of London in 2019 and has since volunteered and worked with a range of historical institutions from the Imperial War Museum, to Historic Royal Palaces. Laura is passionate about engaging people from all walks of life in the past, with a particular interest in the voices and stories of those often overlooked by traditional history.