Largely known for its Viking past, its cobbled streets and its gothic minster, the city of York is certainly not the first that most would associate with Cold War paranoia.
Yet hidden in the suburbs near the racecourse, is the rather eerie English Heritage-run York Cold War Bunker. Seemingly sitting atop a small slope this three-storey building in fact runs underground and contains an operations room, living quarters and decontamination rooms that would have been used in case of nuclear attack.
The bunker was opened in 1961 – at a time when former Second World War allies were uncertain about Soviet intentions in Berlin and just a year before the Cuban Missile Crisis. Fears of nuclear war were at their peak and the Royal Observer Corps (ROC) was tasked with the role of gathering data and issuing warnings should an attack take place.
This particular shelter was the headquarters of a local network of smaller bunkers, equipped with monitoring and communication equipment. Ones such as these also had a ground zero indicator to gauge the bearing and size of an atomic bomb, as well as ensuing radiation levels.
The bunker was manned by volunteers of ROC No 20 Group who had evening and weekend training, along with a couple of major exercises a year. During peacetime, a team of three manned the bunker while the outlying ones remained unmanned. It was only during times of crisis that about 60 people could be posted here – with three teams alternating between rest, work and standby – and the entire network would be manned.
You enter the bunker on the upper level where you can see the charcoal filters that were intended to help keep the air fresh and radiation free, the decontamination rooms (now the ticket office) and the radiator room.
Accompanied by guide, you then descend the stairs into the bowels of the building – where the living quarters, canteen, officers room and top floor of the operations room are.
The bunker was prepared for a full team of people to live here for about 30 days in case of a nuclear bomb. It doesn’t take much effort to imagine the conditions that would have ensued as people slept in shifts in a limited number of beds, were banned from showering to save precious water supplies and had little contact to the outside world.
But it is the two-level Operations Room that would have been key, where data would have been received from outlying monitoring posts, assessed and then shared as required. A particular feature of this room is the AWDREY – Atomic Weapons Detection Recognition and Estimation of Yield – device. A very early computer that replaced the complex system of boards and maps originally used, they were installed at 12 of 29 ROC headquarters, including York, and would automatically transmit information in case of attack. Notably, the one at York is the last in existence.
All in all, a visit to the York Cold War Bunker is a fascinating insight into an era defined by fear and suspicion. It seems strange to imagine that it was on standby until as recently as 1991, two years after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The bunker was closed completely in 1992 and left to deteriorate until English Heritage took it into its care in 2000 and fully restored the building and its contents. It is now preserved as a poignant reminder of a not-so-distant past, having never had to be put to its full use.
For further information on costs and opening times, which are limited, visit the English Heritage website at http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/daysout/properties/york-cold-war-bunker/ or call 01904 646940.