January 7, 2015

Cold War Bunker

The Royal Observer Corps (ROC) were founded in 1925, after Britain suffered German air raids during the First World War. In 1954 they were given the role of gathering data on nuclear explosions and issuing warnings in case of nuclear attack, which was a real threat during the Cold War. The Cold War Bunker in York was built in 1961, to be the headquarters of ROC´s No 20 Group. The fear of nuclear bombs was at its height, with the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 and television dramas like "The War Game".

I grew up in the Cold War climate, but was too young and self-centered to be really worried. Now I worry about everything - I guess age does that to some of us.

Anyway, it was really interesting to navigate the quiet housing area of Holgate and The Rise, west of central York. Suddenly, behind some houses, there it was. We were early, and I wondered who else would be interested in this besides a couple of nerds, but it turned out to be quite a crowd, even children, and the bunker became rather cramped. Not that there is an abundance of space down there. Our guide told us that when the ROC had their week-long drills, they would sleep in turns, several people using the same bed. Some wouldn´t even sleep, too disgusted by the thought of sharing sheets with their collegues. I think they might have if the practiced scenario had become reality; being an alert watchdog while being sleep-deprived seems like a bad idea.

The bunker in section.
Our guide said that while the activities in the bunker were officially secret, the ROC volunteers were more or less encouraged to "spill the beans", so that the community knew that the government was prepared and had a plan. One look at the doors and airlock that were supposed to hold for a nuclear blast and radiation - and comparing it to its counterparts at the Boden forts back home - made us realize that this was, more or less, a playhouse, intended more to boost moral than to have any real defensive role.

The Soviet Union disintegrated in the late 80´s and the ROC was retired in 1991. The bunker was empty and abandoned between 1992 and 2000, when English Heritage recognized its historical value and turned it into a museum. We really enjoyed our visit, and so did everyone else - many lingered in the bunker after the official tour was over. I think these museums serve as a useful reminder of a time with a very different spirit; I sincerely hope that we never have to face those kinds of fears again.

The Control room. 

Our very charming and informative guide, Anna Hughes.

I feel rather old seeing gadgets like these exhibited; I remembering working on similar ones.

A carpet chronicling the Cuban Missile Crisis

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