New uses for old bunkers #7 – demystifying or dulling the former UK Government citadel at Corsham Quarries?
May 24, 2012 Leave a comment
“In disaster movies, when the asteroid is hurtling towards earth, or the super volcano is about to blow, there is always a top-secret location where the president, government officials and top-scientists are whisked away to. Only big enough to support the most important humans, it is usually some sort of mountain, cave, or subterranean bunker made to support a few thousand folks for long enough for the radiation/dust/fire to clear. In England, it just so happens that that location is real and located under a charming sleepy market town known as Corsham, Wiltshire.” (atlasobscura.com)
This blog-essay will consider the steps by which – in part through subsequent use and discourse – the former Cold War central government underground emergency HQ complex beneath the gently rolling hills of North Wiltshire has moved from ‘secret’ to ‘known’ status over the past 20 years. It will close with a rumination on whether this appearance of ‘known-ness’ (familiarity even) is itself a way of hiding the violent potency and ‘otherness’ of such places.
Repurposing a quarry
The gentle limestone hills of Corsham were under-mined (i.e. quarried out from inside) for over a century up until 1934, leaving a vast underground complex of high, and long, man-made caverns. The sheltered (and shielded) advantages of this were exploited in WWII by the construction of an entire aircraft factory (served by a workforce of 20,000) within a portion of the complex. Elsewhere, these caverns were used for munitions storage. The Cold War saw these former mineral workings repurposed once more: this time into the UK central government’s hide-out, complete with its own railway station. Known by its Cold War codename, ‘Turnstile’ (until the mid 1960s ‘Burlington’), this site was strictly top secret, access to it guarded by the RAF base perched on the surface of this subterranean Whitehall-in-waiting, designed to be manned by a staff of over 7,000 in time of emergency (to be delivered there from London by train and 200 requisitioned buses).
Local resident Nick McCamley’s lifetime project to investigate this complex started when, as a youth, he stumbled into an abandoned portion of the underground quarry. His years of painstaking research at first met with blank denial from the authorities:
“We were saying one thing and the government were absolutely denying it…They simply wouldn’t admit that [the Cold War bunker] existed. They wouldn’t admit they had an emergency war HQ, and even if it did exist, it wasn’t at Corsham” (McCamley interviewed in Bizarre magazine (Hot Cherry, n.d)).
But with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the ‘peace dividend’ identified as flowing from the end of the Cold War stand-off, secrecy (and potential use) of this facility was progressively stood-down, and by 1998 McCamley was able to publish his book-length study of this complex, and its eras of adaptation to national exigencies: Secret Underground Cities. Despite the plural in the title, McCamley’s book is primarily concerned with the Corsham site, his later book Cold War Secret Nuclear Bunkers (2002)– as its name suggests – dealt with the national array of Cold War sites and their facilities.
Describing a secret underground city
From the late 1960s the UK civil defence infrastructure moved increasingly towards a decentralised stance – with ‘Regional Seats of Government’ like Hack Green in Cheshire reducing the need (or wisdom) of a single centralised ‘national’ Government HQ and the Corsham site began its slow decline. But it remained secret until the mid 1990s, since when the Corsham site has progressively become more ‘knowable’.
What is notable in the accounts that have emerged of this place as a result of this ‘opening up’ is the way in which a contemporary genre-blend of a titillating apocalyptic poetics and studious political research appears stylistically unavoidable. Thus, Peter Hennessy’s The Secret State (2003), a learned academic investigation into how the civil service managed civil defence and nuclear diplomacy in the 1950s and 1960s, invokes these genres in an interlude in which Hennessy visits the Corsham Cold War complex.
In keeping with the wider subject matter of the book, Hennessey logs in precise detail the branches of the Government that his request for permission to enter the Cold War base is passed amongst. Thereafter he describes the experience of his visit to the base that ‘misty spring morning’ (2003:187) – and for this episode Hennessey momentarily feels obliged to slip out of mandarin speak and to steer his narrative tone towards something more poetic. In a nod to conspiracy theory, Hennessey conjectures whether he has been shown all of the complex – or whether some areas have been withheld for sinister reasons. He then slips further into conjectural mode: would the denizens destined for this place have made it in time? Meanwhile in an echo of tropes common to national nostalgia for wartime states of readiness and valour Hennessey writes of ‘a rusty, red-cross-emblazoned tin helmet [resting] next to two white tea cups – enduring symbols of Britishness.’ (2003: 189)
Hennessey’s slip into a more poetic register in this chapter of his book does not appear contrived, but it is notable for its shift away from his certain and authoritative tone elsewhere in his book. It may be that such places summon a particular style of response – that the stimulus forces a visitor to write evocatively. Hennessey was accompanied by a photographer, Jason Orton, and his book includes photos of the visit. These photos follow the usual visual tropes found in bunkerology (and urban exploration more generally): an image of the nondescript surface structure; a rear view of the explorer (Hennessey at point of entry in helmet and fluorescent jacket – clothing to signify the ‘danger’ and otherness of the world to which he was about to descend); warning and other operational signs; derelict furniture; de-populated areas of activity (in this case the kitchens); remnants of occupation (a photograph of the aforementioned helmet and tea cups); light switches (with adjacent enticingly half open door); a long corridors (here the underground rail siding).
A web search reveals that Hennessey’s photographer, may have been selected precisely because his specialism is this type photography. Orton’s website (Orton n.d.) declares that his “photographs combine topographical observation with a personal, cultural, literary and psychological interpretation of place.” and presents his photographic essay: Codename Turnstile. [NB: the photographs presented here are not Orton’s, they are from Fortaguada’s Flickr photostream – but they are very similar in style].
The Corsham complex is not open to the public – but public tours of it are available via a variety of virtual studies. Thus BBC Wiltshire’s website (BBC 2009) has a set of 360 degree photographs depicting this state citadel, whilst the BBC’s World Service (2005) provides a feature on the site as part of an English language teaching programming (for spies?).
Meanwhile, the Reader’s Digest’s Secrets of Underground Britain DVD series (Croce 2008) provides 20 minutes of underground footage and comment from the depths of the complex, including interviews with the manager of the complex and the RAF commander with overall responsibility for the base above. They both, with wry smiles, comment on some of the more fantastical claims made about the site from the conspiracy theory extremes of the family of genres by which this place is made ‘known’:
“Rumours abounding about the facilities down here. At one time we were said to be the UK’s Area 51, we have alien space craft down here, and we have experimentation with aliens [PAUSE] which people, they can go out and think that if they want to.” (Interview with the Mine Manager, Andy Quinn, in Croce 2008)
Thus the Corsham complex, in various sources, is depicted in a manner that presents a process of exploration and uncovery of ‘a secret base’. Not surprisingly, this allows speculation about ‘other’ secrets to remain – and requires even those who own the facility to at least acknowledge (albeit ironically) conspiracy theory and apocalyptic tropes.
Repurposing a once secret citadel
From their investigations into the ways in which bunkers and other military structured come to be encultured both Beck (2011) and Flintham (2012) have argued that the urge to (and facilitation of) the transformation of Cold War bunkers from ‘secret’ to ‘known’ status may have a dulling effect, that blinds or obscures the viewer (and particularly the bunker-enthusiast) to the military machine that continues to dwell elsewhere in other bunkers which are still very much operational (or standing in readiness for operation).
I don’t disagree with their point here – but I would view this side-effect of knowing as more viewer-led than perhaps they would. I don’t see a cunning plan behind this de-naturing, cherishing or rendering banal of abandoned bunkers. Instead I see a process of projection at work here – meanings are projected onto these blank structures by a variety of cultural groups, and culture comes to absorb these places, for they cannot exist outside the human urge to interpret, categorize, story-tell and re-use.
These last two (story-telling and reuse) bring me to the latest irony that strikes me about the life of this once secret and apocalyptically focussed place. That irony is the co-option of the site by filmmakers, who appear to have been given extensive access to this facility to film episodes of the recent BBC children’s television drama, The Sparticle Mysteries. In that series a group of children find themselves suddenly bereft of all adults (the adults have disappeared due to some sub-atomic accident or other that appears to have a link to a fortune teller’s booth at a funfare, I confess that I never quite managed to work it out in my snatched viewing). The series comprises a series of quest-type journeys, one of which leads them into a bunker complex, replete with self-acting intelligent security technologies, and lots of provisions assembled for civic and military survival – but no adults. Pretty much a depiction of the facility at the time of McCamley’s first incursion.
Life imitating art imitating life here I think…
In 2005 the Ministry of Defence attempted to sell off portions of the complex – but the sale attempt was unsuccessful. Meanwhile in 2008 English Heritage commissioned a comprehensive survey of the underground facility – perhaps one day this vast 35 acre Cold War tomb, including its 10 miles of internal roadways will be open to all, not just film crews and adventurous explorers.
Source of photographs: Fortaguada’s photostream http://www.flickr.com/search/show/?q=bunker&w=53098302%40N00&ss=2
BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) (2005) ‘Weekender – Wiltshire’s Underground City’ feature on BBC website. Available at:
BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) (2009) ‘Wiltshire’s Underground City’ feature on the BBC website. Available at: www.bbc.co.uk/wiltshire/underground_city/
Beck, J. (2011) “Concrete ambivalence – Inside the bunker complex” Cultural Politics 7 79-102
Croce, B. (Dir.) (2008b) Secrets of Underground Britain – Volume 3: modern mysteries, London: Readers’ Digest Association Inc.
English Heritage / Oxford Archaeology (2008) Joint Support Unit (JSU), Corsham – A characterisation of the quarries, their 20th century defence uses and related above ground infrastructure, copy available at: http://corsham.thehumanjourney.net/pdfs/CORSHAM_report.pdf
Flintham, M. (2012) ‘The Military-Pastoral Complex: contemporary representations of militarism in the landscape’, Tate Papers (available at: http://www.tate.org.uk/research/publications/tate-papers/military-pastoral-complex-contemporary-representations-militarism)
Hennessy, Peter (2003) The Secret State – Whitehall and the Cold War, London: Penguin.
Hot Cherry (n.d.) ‘Going Underground’ article published in Bizarre Magazine, available at http://www.hot-cherry.co.uk/writing6.htm (Last accessed 5 August 2010).
McCamley, N.J. (2005) Secret Underground Cities, Barnsley: Pen & Sword Military.
McCamley, N.J. (2007) Cold War Secret Nuclear Bunkers – The Passive Defence of the Western World During the Cold War, Barnsley: Pen & Sword Military Classics.
Orton, J. (nd) Jason Orton Website, available at: http://www.jasonorton.com/web/index.html.