Visiting an underground bunker in Portland
PUBLISHED: 10:10 19 October 2015 | UPDATED: 10:10 19 October 2015
A visit to a nuclear bunker deep underground in Portland conjures up thoughts of a time when Britain's population was haunted by the very real threat of nuclear war
I’m 70 feet underground. Apart from the narrow beam of my torch, it’s completely dark. My every damp footstep echoes off the curved metal walls. Frankly, it’s eerie. I don’t really like caves and the fact that this one is manmade is little comfort. But, I’ve only got myself to blame. No-one made me climb down the ladder into this nuclear bunker on Portland.
I vividly remember the newspaper article which started all this back in 2007. It was about the Burlington bunker; the big daddy of Cold War shelters, a 34-acre site in Wiltshire from where the government and 4000 civil servants would run the country in the event of an all-out thermonuclear war. What stuck in my mind was a picture of the site’s switchboard. Can you imagine trying to recruit someone to that role? ‘Wanted: telephonist to route calls after the apocalypse’.
I was intrigued by the whole concept of a nuclear bunker, and I promised myself that one day I would find an excuse to visit one of these places. Fast forward to October last year and there I am chatting to a couple in a cosy pub in Corfe Castle. I don’t know how, but the conversation gets around to nuclear bunkers.
“Oh yeah, my mate owns one of them,” said the husband. He goes on to tell me that his friend’s shelter is an old Royal Observer Corps monitoring post. It’s nothing much to look at, he admits, its just a small office and a loo buried about six feet underground in Worth Matravers. He reveals that there are in fact over 1500 of these underground bunkers around the UK. All are decommissioned now, but a few dozen are privately owned.
Seeing that my interest is piqued, he goes on to suggest that what I really should do is to get in touch with Subterranea Britannica. Sub Brit, as they are better known, is a club of about 1200 members who have an unnatural fascination with all things manmade and under the ground. Coincidentally, their secretary just happens to live outside Wareham. When I asked him about sites worth seeing, he points me in the direction of Portland.
Which is how, a few weeks later, I find myself deep below ground, fulfilling the goal I’ve had for almost ten years. The Portland bunker is a remarkable place to explore. Behind a large metal blast door, there’s a 70 foot shaft straight down where a lift used to be. Now two steel-caged ladders are the only point of access. After the ladders, a three-metre diameter entrance tunnel slopes into the bunker itself. Sadly, it’s been stripped and looted over the years, and fire and water damage have taken their toll, but it only needs a little imagination to bring it to life.
Here’s the map room, with a first floor mezzanine, from where the generals could plot their strategies. Over there are the ventilation units that would have pulled clean air into the shelter. And here’s the mess and the toilets to remind me that actual human beings once called this facility home.
It’s early November when I visit – Halloween has just happened, and certainly this is a spooky place to be. But more frightening still is that there was a time when places like this were full of men, scared and tired, and listening for signs that their world might be about to end.
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