New uses for old bunkers #26: the lure of the abandoned bomb store
October 13, 2012 1 Comment
During breakfast yesterday my ears pricked up when I heard the headlines declared for Radio 4 Today programme’s 8am news report. A new instalment of English Heritage’s ‘buildings at risk list’ was out: interesting, but not enough to stop me munching my cornflakes. No, it was the BBC’s choice to illustrate that list by reference to the remains of Theford Cold War A-bomb store (at the former ‘RAF Barnham’ – now a run down industrial estate) that stopped me in my tracks. Why had they chosen that as their teaser? I waited with baited breath to find out. Was this going to be a ‘those mindless bureaucrats have gone and designated something stupid and valueless as a heritage asset?’ story-line or instead the ‘the heritage we are in danger of losing is of a wider range than you might think, we are at the brink of forgetting the Cold War’ angle.
Actually, it proved to be neither. The substantive news item was brief, and illustrated its theme via a derelict rollercoaster rather than the A-bomb place (but the tone was more in the ‘we need to save recent heritage too’ discourse, than the silly bureaucrats one).
Having now looked briefly into it I find an array of local and national press reports of the publication of the list yesterday and they each foreground the A-bomb store and the roller coaster. It looks like a clear case of ‘story placement’, I haven’t tracked it down yet but I think I could easily reconstruct English Heritage’s originating press release from the quotes, themes and pictures recurrent in the published reports.
So, why the focus on these twentieth century ruins? Well, it looks like an attempt to map the breadth of our built environment heritage, and the speed at which it can be lost. An attempt at something contemporary and of wider appeal than stock images of stories of castles and stately homes, a stab at something less stuffy, middle England and middle class (a sensitivity acknowledged in some of the press reports). And there’s also proximity to the fiftieth anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis later this month – the nation’s bunker museums are currently getting good media coverage as a way of portraying the nervous horror of the Cold War era, as an emotive adjunct to newsreel footage of politicians, newspaper headlines, and naval blockades.
The physical – the ‘concrete’ in both senses – can remind us or connect us with something felt and lived that such newsreels cannot. And these Cold War places (for some) have a chilling power to provoke a strange cherishing affection. Let me explain.
When I was a jobbing environmental lawyer, I spent most of my time playing a small role in the deindustrialisation of South Wales and South Yorkshire. At least, that’s what I thought and noticed at the time. I realised that the steel works, the coal mines, the textile factories and the chemical plants were closing, everyone did. What I didn’t spot so readily was that the Cold War military sites were closing then too. But, when I think back on it I was involved in a fair bit of that as well. It is only after the event and looking back that I can join the dots of those specific events and realise that there was a profound demilitarisation process at work in the 1990s and early 2000s.
And what I recall most from those now-remembered decommissioning projects is how these sites would occasionally strangely captivate some of professionals working on them. Two instances spring to mind:
First, I remember a land agent. As a long serving staff member of a government agency he’d dealt with a very diverse portfolio of properties in his career. But when he was assigned a ‘specialist’ former munitions site to look after he developed a very evangelical attachment to that place, fondly sharing with me archival worker induction films from the 1940s and battling within his organisation to get recognition of the heritage value of the crumbling drab block-houses that made up this site (whilst my professional focus was directed more to the soil contamination and buried ordnance still resting beneath them).
Secondly, I remember a conversation with a former colleague. He had a very fond attachment to the recently closed local USAF airbase and its nuclear bomber silos. He spoke earnestly to me about how he would resign rather than act for any developer who might wish to turn this particular place into anything other than a Cold War museum. He was deadly serious. This would be a career-staking cause if necessary. He wanted those odd structures to live on as a way of ensuring that the Cold War era was remembered through that place as a physical monument to that time and the former life and importance of that place. I felt that in the passion of his words and attachment to that place and former time he was displaying something equivalent to a previous generation’s attachment to the steam railway as an embodiment of a formative childhood world now lost.
But, as far as I can tell, he never had to resign. Through a concentrated programme in the 1990s English Heritage surveyed and then attached protective designations (‘listing’) upon many twentieth century military and defensive buildings and structures. Some new uses have been found within the protected structures of some (e.g. server farms with the hardened nuclear silos at Greenham Common, built to shelter cruise missiles in the 1980s) most remain out of (re)use. As the English Heritage briefing to the press has noted, most ‘at risk’ heritage buildings have little prospect of redevelopment to new uses, and there is resignation to a strategy of preservation against further regeneration. Sympathetic re-use (ideally with addition of a heritage centre) is the goal, but for many such places the best that is realistically being hoped for is a condition of preserved ruination, rather than dilapidation, deterioration and eventual disappearance. But it’s a fine line, for ‘preserved’ ruination costs money too.
Details of the RAF Barnham site (and the Thetford a-bomb store) are available at: http://www.bunkertours.co.uk/barnham.htm (from which the above photograph has been taken)
Details of: English Heritage – Buildings at Risk
And for a more general (and traditional) overview of the 6,000 buildings at risk see this report in the Daily Mail