A chilling visit to a Cold War relic close to the heart of York

PUBLISHED: 00:00 14 August 2015 | UPDATED: 10:12 14 August 2015

Inside the Cold War bunker at Acomb near York

Inside the Cold War bunker at Acomb near York

Source: English Heritage Photo Library - Picture Reference: N070183

The history of England is still being made, as Terry Fletcher discovers

Inside the Cold War bunker at Acomb near YorkInside the Cold War bunker at Acomb near York

Few things in modern life seem quite so terrifyingly high-tech as nuclear weapons, missiles that can be fired underwater from submarines that themselves can hide silently beneath the polar ice for months on end before delivering warheads capable of obliterating entire cities thousands of miles away. Throughout the 1960s, 70s and 80s films convinced us we were defended by sophisticated spies armed with ingenious gadgets and equally high-tech devices. So it is a sobering experience to visit a Cold War bunker in suburban York and discover our local defences were far more Dad’s Army rather than James Bond.

The bunker, in Holgate just off the busy Acomb Road, was the local headquarters of the Royal Observer Corps No 20 Group, and was one of 29 across the country intended to be staffed by around 60 trained volunteers. In the event of a nuclear attack their job was to monitor bomb explosions, assess their power and track the resulting fall-out before passing the information to regional and national command centres.

The three-storey building with its metre-thick reinforced concrete walls is partially-buried in an earth mound but it was never particularly secret. People in the local area would have been well aware of its presence and its purpose, especially as the volunteers themselves had to live close by. In the event of a surprise attack and sirens going off they would have had only a matter of minutes to reach the bunker before the blast doors were slammed shut.

How safe they would have been once inside is a matter of pure conjecture. A nuclear bomb strikes in three waves. First comes an enormous fireball, incinerating everything in its path, closely followed by a blast wave so powerful that it razes even stone buildings. Finally and most insidiously comes fall-out – dust and debris sucked up into the mushroom cloud which becomes irradiated and is then spread indiscriminately on the wind, poisoning everything and everyone it touches. One of the occupants’ most dangerous tasks involved a volunteer having to go outside every few hours to collect light-sensitive cards from a special device that allowed them to calculate the power and direction of an explosion. The only anti-radiation protection for the volunteer was a cotton boiler suit to cover the skin and a series of three showers once they got back inside to try to remove any fall-out. Not exactly state-of-the-art even then. The bunker itself was stocked with food and water for about 30 days after which the occupants would have to emerge into whatever was left.

The bunker is now a listed building and in the care of English Heritage, every bit as much a part of our history are the mediaeval abbeys and stately homes the charity tends.

Ross MacLeod, the site manager, said: ‘Even though it is relatively modern, many things about the bunker are far from clear. It was designed to survive what was described as a near miss. Officially that’s a two megaton explosion eight miles away. Since we are not much more than a mile from the centre of York and its railway network it’s hard to say if it would have survived if the city was targeted.

‘Some people have asked why they were not built away from built-up areas and manned by the military. Others have suggested they were intended almost as a PR gesture to reassure people that the government was doing something. Thankfully, it was never tested.’

The bunker was commissioned in 1961, just a year before the Cuban Missile Crisis brought American and Russia to the brink of nuclear war, and remained in use until 1991, when Mikhail Gorbachev and the first president Bush announced the end of the Cold War, which had seen both governments stockpiling weapons in a deadly arms race. The stand-off underpinned all their contacts for more than 30 years and relied on a doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction – the belief that both would be totally destroyed in any nuclear exchange.

Some still find it strange that such a modern building is being cared for by English Heritage, an organisation more associated with much older sites, including Stonehenge. Some 6,000 people a year visit the bunker. Some are school and university groups for whom it is already part of history but for many older visitors who lived through the Cold War it is part of their own life story.

Ross said: ‘It provokes a range of reactions. To young children it can seem quite cool but older visitors are much more thoughtful afterwards because they can remember the fear of it happening.’

The other thing it shows is that our history did not end with Wars of the Roses, the Civil War, Trafalgar, Waterloo or even the Second World War but is a never-ending narrative that is still being written today. w

The bunker can only be visited as part of an official tour. Details from english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/york-cold-war-bunker or from the Clifford’s Tower offices on 01904 646940.

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