Forgotten past: nuclear bunkers


They are beneath our feet, and we have forgotten them.

Or rather, they were once shocking but we have become accustomed to the very idea of them, and have painted them into the backgrounds of our lives.

The other day it transpired that I work directly over a nuclear bunker.

The Victorian mansion, built in the wilds of Windsor forest in the  19th century, was chosen as the perfect spot for a bolt hole in the event of global nuclear war.

And so they used the cellars and made the place fit for purpose. And when the immediate threat of war dissipated; when we became able to ignore tha fact that people still hold the horrific weapons of mass distraction; well, then eventually the bunker fell into disuse and it is now a talking point, alongside the ghosts that haunt the mansion upstairs.

I have never seen a nuclear bunker. Or been in one. The one at Dover Castle, hidden deep in the cliffs, is now occasionally open to the public but so far it has evaded me. The little town burrowed beneath Wiltshire is common knowledge these days, but I have yet to visit it, and I think people would rather forget it than see it as a salutary tourist attraction.

Because we never say never, do we?

We were walking the streets of New York, not far from our hotel, on a brilliant Sunny August day and Phil stopped us. “Look,” he said. “Do you know what that sign means?”

We looked. And above a door with no handle, next to a hair boutique, was a sign. This was the entrance to one of the city’s nuclear bunkers.

“What, New York had them?” I asked him. He nodded. And Immediately I imagined a time of drills and sirens, when nuclear war was a clear and present danger and Armageddon must have seemed just round the next corner.

I have never seen a nuclear bunker before. And part of me hopes fervently that I never will.

But the historian in me is already planning a sortie down the stairs into the cellars of the 19th century mansion, on the edge of Windsor Forest.

Written in  response to Side View’s weekend theme: Something I have Never Done Before, which you can find here

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33 thoughts on “Forgotten past: nuclear bunkers

  1. It is not as if the threat has gone away! Why was there no door handle on the one in New York.. kind of defeats the purpose? Very interesting questions you have raised. c

    1. Hooray, hi, Pseu! I’ve seen the top two levels, just not Dumpy. They don’t take children under 14, and I would feel duplicitous. Though I expect I’ll overcome my qualms before too long.

  2. I remember those drills in elementary school. Getting under the desks in case a nuclear bomb went off over the school. I remember those signs, too. Then there was the Cuban missile crisis when I was in high school, when people in Austin, Texas were putting extra water bags and canned goods in the back of their station wagons and looking toward the sky. We all thought the Russians were going to smack us down. I’m sure it did something permanent to our psyche.

  3. I’m still haunted by Raymond Briggs’ graphic novel When the Wind Blows (1982), a blistering attack on the advice given by the British government on how to protect oneself and survive a nuclear attack.

  4. Comedian Robert Klein, among others, used to joke about how students were told to respond in the event of a nuclear (atomic?) bomb attack. As I recall, we were supposed to hide under our desks. Yes, that’s it … Feel safe much? I can’t believe that’s all the safety precautions officials thought were necessary.

    Many years later, when I lived in Onondaga County (New York State), again, as I recall, the news media reported that there was a fallout shelter in the event of a nuclear attack. Who would get these precious spots? Politicians. Yeah, we sure don’t have enough of them. 🙂

  5. Like a few others commenting, I’m old enough to remember hiding under my desk in air raid drills, and knowing full well it would never protect me in an atomic attack. Signs like the one you post still dot the city of Chicago. As a young girl, I always made sure I knew where one was when we went downtown, and I wanted my parents to build a shelter in our back yard. Like Galealbright, I also clearly remember the Cuban missile crisis. I was about 13. Old enough to know of impending danger. Those were scary times – but, at least we knew who the enemy was in those days.

    At any rate, I’ll look forward to historian Kate and her story and pictures.

  6. Some days I am absolutely amazed that we are still here with such idiocy all around the world. Then I shake the feeling and just try to do a little good here and there.

  7. The recent Kenya horror shows how fanatics will stop at nothing to achieve their supremely insane ideals. The threat remains real. DIY kits for nuclear devices are not that difficult to come by.

  8. We have bunkers all over Southern California, but many of them are now somewhat disguised. But not to worry. I was taught as a child, through numerous drills, that in a nuclear blast all I had to do was duck under my desk and cover my head–the bunker wasn’t on the school grounds! I shouldn’t laugh…gallows humor! I handle this kind of stress by pretending it doesn’t exist!

  9. I think you hit the nail on the head when you said “we never say never”. It really does seem as if there is part of the collective consciousness that thinks if we show too much interest in them we might actually have to spend more time in them than we’d ever want to.

  10. For several years after the Cuban Missile Crisis here in Miami, Florida USA the small individual home owner back yard cellar type of thing was very popular. There are no cellars in Miami homes because the water level is so close to the surface so naturally these holes in the ground bunkers did not last long.

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