diamond geezer

 Saturday, September 18, 2004

London Open House: Codename 'Paddock'

Brook Road, Neasden, is a very ordinary looking suburban road. There's some social housing, an old people's home, a bit of office space... and a small squat brick building lying innocuously in someone's front garden. But this is no ordinary building - it's the entrance to the Government's most secret World War Two bunker. Not that you'd guess from looking at the building today. There's no giant red arrow pointing down the steps towards the entrance in real life, oh no. Hush hush, careless talk costs lives.

It was in 1938 that the Government started to get panicky about the imminent outbreak of war and started asking the unthinkable. What would happen if the Cabinet War Offices in Whitehall were bombed? What if Hitler were to invade the country? The British Government had to be able to continue to try to run the country, but from where? Hurriedly they set about building a new secret underground control centre in Neasden, just in case. The bunker was designed to hold the entire war cabinet along with 200 support staff. Two floors were hollowed out of the hillside beneath the Post Office Research Station, protected beneath five feet of reinforced concrete so that the facility could withstand a direct hit from a German bomb. The bunker, codenamed 'Paddock', was ready for operations in 1940 and Churchill visited in October of that year.
"We held a Cabinet meeting at PADDOCK far from the light of day, and each Minister was requested to inspect and satisfy himself about his sleeping and working apartments. We celebrated this occasion by a vivacious luncheon, and then returned to Whitehall."
Me and Louise visited Paddock today. I nearly didn't make it in time, what with over-running tours at St Pancras and engineering works on the Jubilee Line, but eventually I puffed up the hill to the site entrance with just a couple of minutes to spare. It's always a pleasure to meet a blog reader, and even more so to descend with them into the bowels of the earth wearing a fetching yellow safety helmet. Hi Louise, thanks for coming along, and thanks for not laughing when it took me five attempts to put my helmet on correctly.

Our tour guide clearly relished his role as entertainer-in-chief. He led our group down to the first level where it was cool and most definitely damp, ushering us into a couple of dingy rooms filled with rusting machinery. We headed on down a corroded spiral staircase to the lowest level, 40 feet beneath the surface. Here another long corridor stretched off into the distance, tens of small rooms lying dark and forlorn to either side. We stood in the Map Room where Wrens would have pushed little model battleships around on a big chart, and we also stood in the War Cabinet Room where Churchill held that one cabinet meeting back in in 1940. Thin stalactites hung from the roof, dry rot covered the ceiling and the mulchy remains of rotten lino squelched underfoot. Back upstairs we saw the remains of a telephone exchange and the tiny kitchen where food was prepared, although apparently there was a planning oversight and the architects forgot to include toilets anywhere in the complex. We very tried hard not to imagine Winston straining over a small tin bucket.

After nearly an hour underground we returned to the surface, back to normality. A democratic self-governing reality which, had Paddock ever been used for real, might not be the norm today at all. Thank goodness it was only ever a standby facility, and that today it lies rotting and abandoned. The housing association who now own the land above are only contracted to open the bunker twice a year, but there is an excellent virtual tour that allows you to follow in our somewhat-damp footsteps. You may not have been there today, but you can still take a look into the hidden depths of what might have been, beneath the hills of Neasden.

virtual tour
Subterranea Britannica history page (seriously detailed)
more photos
nyclondon visited on Saturday too (fab b&w photos)

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