Whenever I read of a great wave of public alarm,’ my grandfather used to say as he peered over the top of his Daily Telegraph, ‘I am gripped by a massive calm.’
I do not know what Grandad thought of the nuclear shadow said to be hanging over us through the Sixties and Seventies; indeed, I do not know what I think myself. As a young Tory I did share the alarm. More recently the questions asked by Andrew Alexander, the Daily Mail’s right-wing columnist, about the assumed imminence of a nuclear threat during the Cold War, have reopened more minds than mine. In place of ‘nuclear’, I have just typed ‘unclear’. Perhaps my unconscious mind is trying to tell me something.
But alarm was real at the time. I cannot count the number of debates, speeches and arguments I entered as the Conservative MP for West Derbyshire to make Margaret Thatcher’s government’s case for a high state of readiness. Just how ready we were, however, I had not appreciated until a discovery last weekend. Unknown to me, there was a subterranean nuclear bunker in the middle of my own rural constituency. There still is. I have just visited this astonishing time capsule.
Visiting friends from Nottingham told me about it. They had been looking at a website on which is posted details of a Royal Observer Corps survey of their own nuclear monitoring posts, of which there are apparently hundreds across the country.
Most of these were built in the 1960s. The purpose was not shelter: they were to be occupied during high-level nuclear scares, when, on a signal, volunteers (two or three in the case of the post I visited) would clamber down into the bunker and stay. The volunteers’ job was to take readings from above their bunker and feed these into a central monitoring station in Coventry. They were to remain until either the all-clear was given or they died from the radiation.
The directions on the website were clear. I will not advertise the location; but when I read the directions I recognised at once the curious little concrete mound one had noticed not a hundred yards from a minor road we knew well. My friends and I drove there and parked on the verge. I called at the nearest farm to ask who kept the land on which the bunker was situated. ‘I remember it being built,’ said the lady of the house, leading a horse from its paddock. ‘And I remember in the Eighties when they used to have emergency drills. In our house we kept the batteries they needed to run their lights and telephone signalling equipment. There would be helicopters and ambulances, and people running down the road and across the field in the night.’
She gave me the name of the tenant farming the land, whom we telephoned. On the spot he willingly made arrangements for our access, but sounded unused to such requests. Almost the last he had heard about his bunker was more than a decade ago when anti-nuclear protesters had glued the locks. We were welcome to try our luck down there, he said. Then I called on the elderly lady who owns a bungalow overlooking the site, to reassure her of our bona fides.
Three friends and I – a friend called Julian, plus David and Mark (the Nottingham couple) accompanied by the diminutive but intrepid Wellington, their wire-haired dachshund – marched across the field on a cold, windy, sunny April afternoon, and climbed the fences. Wellington had to be handed over the top. We made an unlikely post-nuclear recce squad.
All that appeared above ground, within a small barbed-wire enclosure, was a concrete mound in flaking green paint. A sort of pipe poked, periscope-like, above the surface. We raised the heavy metal manhole-cover and peered down the deep shaft now opening beneath us. As our eyes accustomed to the dark, we saw a rusty, fixed iron ladder descending into the gloom. Was that water at the bottom? Down we went, very tentatively, one by one, feeling like the Famous Five. There was a tiny loo by the ladder’s base, with a portable WC. The groundwater was not deep and stopped short of the main chamber into which the bottom of the shaft gave access through a strong metal door.
Through this door was every child’s dream of a den. It reminded me of Moley’s underground residence in The Wind in the Willows. At the end were twin bunks with an extra mattress. By the side was a desk with cupboards. On the wall was a telephone with instructions for getting through to Coventry. On the floor were two pairs of Wellington boots, chairs and jerry-cans. On the desk were rubber gloves, a teapot and a candle holder. Bins, bowls and battery boxes lay ready for a prolonged stay, perhaps until death.
Also ready were instructions for pushing a primitive Geiger counter up a small shaft until it protruded above the surface. Prompted by a rise in radioactivity, the observers were to gauge the quarter from which a nuclear blast was coming, using, it seems, a simple four-directional pinhole camera, above the surface, to take exposures: north, south, east and west. For this operation, supplies of yellowing photographic paper lay (undisturbed) on the desk. Unfortunately a volunteer would be needed to climb out and retrieve the paper. Results were to be telephoned through to Coventry.
One had the creepy feeling that those required to do this work were probably – in the calculations of those who made the overall plans – doomed. Provided for them, however, was a small vanity mirror.
We climbed back up and out into a now-greying Spring 2003 day. The view over the Derbyshire hills in all directions was serene. We felt …how shall I put it? Taken aback, I suppose. To sit down there in the bunker had been to re-enter an epoch not long gone, in which the risks and likelihoods, the fears and contingencies, had seemed sharply different from our own. Where had it all gone? When did it pass? Was it really so amateur and yet so apparently imminent? Was there a point – and did I miss it? – when this scene moved from the scary to the comical, from James Bond to Dad’s Army?
‘While you’re about it,’ said the nice elderly lady in the nearby cottage, ‘could you find out about that strange circle of aerial-like things near Hognaston on the road from Carsington to Ashbourne? It arrived before mobile phones did. What’s it for? I think we should be told.’
Matthew Parris is a political columnist of the Times.