It's ridiculously easy to find these days. All the roadsigns hereabouts have "Secret Nuclear Bunker" plastered across them. Yet before Kelvedon Hatch was decommissioned no civilian ever guessed it was here. A fully-functioning Cold War retreat in the heart of the Essex countryside, deftly hidden beneath a very ordinary-looking hill. Had the four minute warning had ever sounded, this was the only place to be.
I say it's ridiculously easy to find, but that's by car. Arriving by bus and then on foot proved tougher. The local Ordnance Survey map now shows the secret bunker's location, but still not the approach road. Instead several acres of field have been carelessly erased by a government censor, terminating at suspiciously disjoint walls, and continuing the charade that there's nothing to see here honest. I wasted half an hour walking around the perimeter searching for the way in, before finally finding the correct track ridiculously close to where I'd got off the bus.
They did a fine job disguising the bunker, those 1950s government architects. Huge amounts of earth were gouged out from inside the hill, complicated machinery hidden within the void and a thick protective layer laid across the top. Not enough to withstand a direct nuclear strike, but that was OK because London was the target, not southwest Essex. Construction was completed in a ridiculously short time, until all that was obvious outside was one single concrete bungalow. 21st century visitors enter this way.
This is a mighty strange tourist attraction, not least because the farmer who now owns the bunker doesn't employ anyone to watch over you. Instead he's left warning notices everywhere to make sure you behave, and to ensure that you pay up at the end of the tour. A series of badly typeset posters urge you to pick up an audio wand at the entrance, then tell you off soon after if you've not switched it on ("It is not optional, this really does mean you"). As you set off along the corridor into the heart of the hill, try to remember that you'd have been even more unwelcome here under the previous owners. This 120mtunnel would have given the soldiers on guard more than adequate opportunity to gun you down, and that's before you ever reached the impenetrable blast doors.
Everything needed to keep regional government ticking over was incarcerated down here. Dormitories and a canteen to provide rest and sustenance for 600 personnel. Some fairly basic offices, including one whose door is still labelled 'Prime Minister'. Facilities for Bomber Command to keep track of incoming missiles and to fight back against the Soviet foe. A fully functioning BBC studio from which the nation's remaining radio listeners could be duly reassured. And a giant refrigeration plant because a hillful of electrical machinery generates a heck of a lot of heat. What's particularly fascinating is that most of the contents were mothballed when the bunker was decommissioned, which means rooms full of cutting edge technology pre-1994. Dot matrix printers, floppy disc drives, telephone switchboards, even typewriters - it's amazing how ancient modern warfare used to be.
Presentation's marvellously amateur throughout, epitomised by the cheap mannequins tucked up in bunk beds or sat drooping over word processor keyboards. But rest assured that the audio guide's excellent, leading you all around the bunker's three floors on a mission to inform. There are also several places where you can stop to watch public information films about blast zones and fallout, on VHS, as a stark reminder of the nuclear holocaust everyone thought was coming. It's hard not to be moved by the enormity of what this place was created to be, but thankfully never was. You might even, having seen the conditions within, stop and reflect on whether those incinerated outside would have had the better deal. Or you might just buy a sandwich and a souvenir from the gift shop on the way out, and return to blessed normality.