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  • 186 - the logo again.jpg

Kelvedon Hatch secret nuclear bunker

  
  - darkometer rating:  5 -
 
A former Cold War government nuclear bunker in Great Britain, and now privately owned and accessible as a kind of eccentric (if somewhat scruffy) museum.  

>More background info

>What there is to see

>Location

>Access and costs

>Time required

>Combinations with other dark destinations

>Combinations with non-dark destinations

>photos

     
More background info: It was in places like this that members of the British Government were supposed to seek shelter if World War Three had broken out, managing the war and the country from underground.

The history of the place, as well as its functions, are very similar to that of Hack Green nuclear bunker – so see the latter's entry for more background information too.

The bunker at Kelvedon Hatch was built in the early 1950s, initially (like Hack Green) as an RAF radar station to be part of the then "ROTOR" system. But from the late 1950s / early 1960s it served as one of Britain's potential emergency regional government HQs, and the MoD kept the bunker in working condition for a good three decades.   

In the early 1990s, however, the nuclear threat from the Eastern Bloc was perceived to have gone away, and so the Kelvedon Hatch bunker (along with many of its counterparts across Britain) was decommissioned. The property was handed back to the original landowners. It has since been turned into the present museum – which has a few particularly quirky twists … see below.

In 2010, the Kelvedon Hatch bunker was used as a feature film set, namely for the abysmally scripted "horror" flick "S.N.U.B." ( to stand for "secret nuclear underground bunker", if you must ask). It just adds another dubious element to this very strange place …

…. and that's despite its great potential! It should be a prime dark tourism destination, given its authentic Cold War associations. But the way this is commodified here is rather poor. Still, for die-hard Britain-in-the-Cold-War buffs it's a must. If you're a bit more choosy on this front, then go to Hack Green instead.
 
 
What there is to see: When you've made your way to the entrance, through a stretch of forest and past some outdoor exhibits such as an old "flying bomb" of some sort, you can first marvel at the plainness of the building that served as the disguise for the bunker: a very ordinary bungalow or cottage of yellow brick. Allegedly it was purposefully built in this inconspicuous way, and located deep in the woods, so as to not attract any attention. After all, it was – remember – a secret installation!

Today there's no secrecy and a sign outside points out what the former function of the place was – adding, over-dramatically: "Don't forget this bunker […] could still be activated. There are an ever increasing number of nations with nuclear capability. We suggest you visit us now while you still can."

You have to take their written word for it – as there are no staff about anywhere at this site (not until you come to the canteen at the end, at least). In other words, the museum is totally unattended! I presume, hence the reliance on written signs – loads of them. Often harshly formulated.

The urgent tone increases even further once you do indeed proceed to enter. Once you've taken note of the many regulations detailed on a panel by the door (see under access) you step in and immediately see that steps lead down to what is quite clearly a bunker. Before you go on you are urged, with quite some linguistic force, to help yourself to one of the audio-guides provided, which they call "(magic) wands". They come in two versions, one of adults, one for children ("small" children, and "under 5 years" two additional signs specify). All along the way through the bunker there are numbered "stations" corresponding to chapters you're supposed to activate on your "wand".

Though I am no friend of imposed audio-guides I was obedient enough to pick one up. Obviously I didn't check the kiddie version and thus can't comment on it. But even the adult one wasn't really gripping enough to keep me sufficiently engaged to listen to it to the end. I tried, but I noticed that after about station 11 or 12 that I had zoned out and wasn't really paying attention any longer. So after that I more or less left it and just looked around (only dipping in and out of the audio-guide here and there, but without much enthusiasm). All that stuff about "protect and survive" and the bunker-internal arrangements wasn't new to me in any case. Perhaps if you're new to the whole subject, listening to the audio-guide would be more exciting. For me it was either old hat or far too detailed in uninteresting technical specifications. I was primarily here to SEE it anyway.

OK then, guide in hand (or at ear) visitors then proceed down the steps and along a very long corridor – past some bunks and satchels with mobile Geiger counters or some such electronic gear hanging from the walls.

Then you come to a heavy steel door and behind it you find yourself at a staircase leading up and down the bunker's three levels. In a side room you can just about make out various warheads and bombs in the gloom, but they seem to have just been dumped here and do not form part of the exhibition (maybe there are plans to incorporate them later?).

The tour leads you through rooms with vintage communications gear – including a telephone exchange and a room full of teleprinters! (If you're lucky enough to be too young to remember them, look it up.) I found it quite hard to believe that these dinosaurs of the pre-computer age would still have been in use here at the time the site was decommissioned in the 1990s, but so what – it's a museum, after all.

A room behind a glass wall contains the broadcasting studio – from where the relocated government was to send out instructions to the (mostly pulverized, roasted and/or irradiated) population on the outside as to how to behave in the "crisis situation" … as if.

It is also here where you encounter the first of a whole host of dummies/mannequins populating the bunker. This one, sitting by a bright lamp and wearing headphones, is actually a Maggie Thatcher dummy! I couldn't help but be reminded of one "Spitting Image" clip in which Maggie, surrounded by military, is holding headphones to her ear, then lowers them and says into the camera: "No one can say this government isn't listening to its people"!

Next is an mock-up "plotting room", with large maps and more mannequins in uniform not quite looking authoritative. One relief map is more reminiscent of WWII war room scenes – also underscored by a large scale model of a Spitfire hanging from the ceiling. What this is supposed to have to do with the Cold War escapes me.

To one side there is what at first appears to be no more than a jumble room. On closer inspection it turns out that it is supposed to be a reconstruction of a Royal Observer Corps bunker, complete with a chemical toilet and two bunk beds with dummies in them.

Random period posters, charts and text panels line the walls, apparently to provide additional information. But it all has a certain amateurish feel, lacking any consistent concept of commodification.

Totally devoid of any such thing is the basement: this is simply the machine room, containing air-conditioning and other such heavy gear – which is all pretty self-explanatory anyway.

Back up one level, there's a "protect-and-survive" section – and, as you might expect, the relevant government films and brochures feature here (cf. Hack Green).

Incidentally, at various points in the bunker there are TV screens on which a number of video films run in automated loops and you can watch while sitting on the chairs provided. I didn't linger to watch any of the films in full length, though. Again the excerpts from the "protect and survive"-type propaganda films of the era were too familiar to me so I saw no need to sit through them. But for visitors new to the subject they may still be useful.

The "central operations room" then forms one unbelievable pinnacle of tackiness: there are rows of desks with vintage personal computer terminals on them at which a motley crew of shop-window mannequins in all manner of attire sit, or lean, often at rather skewed angles. Some are wearing equally skewed, scruffy wigs, some are bald. Some even lack arms or legs! You just cannot help but laugh. And that in a place that supposedly has such a serious theme to it …

The "bunker population" of dummies gets even more cheesy in the next rooms, supposedly the one for government ministers. In one of them a very unlikely-looking non-minister is a mere torso of a young man with nutcracker chin lying in bed looking fit and bare-chested, but is armless and wearing a rock-star-type, jet-black wig of punky hair. I have yet to see a minister anywhere in the world that looks remotely like this. It's simply hilarious.

Next door, on the other hand, is a more familiar and not quite so amusing sight: yep, it's another Maggie Thatcher, in this case at least calmly lying in bed under a blanket – but still enjoying the bright light of a bedside lamp shining directly in her face.

The involuntary comedy factor is offset a little in an installation that shows how civilians were supposed to live through the nuclear apocalypse, holed up at home: "protected" by a barrier of furniture and bedding against the door, a family in 1950s period clothing holds out in a small makeshift kitchen. It could almost look romantic if it wasn't so tragic. Very reminiscent of the "When the Wind Blows" comic/film.

However, this brief moment of sobering displays is quickly undone again by more rooms with random piles of old electronics strewn around and various junk in corners … altogether not a very authentic atmosphere here at all.

In one such room, visitors are invited to try on things like gas masks – and you can even use a digital camera provided for the purpose (it's secured by metal cables by which it is hanging from the ceiling) … for an additional fee, obviously.

On the upper level, a medical station follows, together with washrooms, toilets and dorms. The surgery, naturally, looks particularly gruesome – even despite the ridiculous dummies. What stifles any chuckles, though, comes at the end: body bags and coffins standing by just in case all medical help would be coming too late …

The dorm rooms are typically crammed two-tier steel frame bunk affairs with small lockers allocated to each of them. Most of the beds with simple blankets are empty – except for a couple of further sleeping mannequin post-beauties. One of them, extraordinarily, has a stiletto heeled shoe rammed deep into the forehead. Is that a "subtle" way of saying "no high heels in the bunker"?!?

The last room is the canteen – and it still functions as one. It is here that you can purchase snacks and drinks, mostly, again on an honesty box basis. The same goes for a few souvenirs that are on sale here, such as coffee mugs with "Top Secret" printed on them or "Russian" military caps with Kelvedon Hatch written on the visor.

This is also the place where you are supposed to part with your money for admission and, if applicable, photo permit (see under access and costs). The canteen, too, was virtually unstaffed – only briefly did I see a figure scurrying past in the kitchen area of the canteen.

You exit the bunker through a tunnel of corrugated metal – and emerge in a totally different location from where you entered. A path leads back to the car park though, past the site's tall aerial mast – formerly an emergency broadcast mast – under which the bunker is actually located. When I was there, some climbers were using it for adrenaline-inducing practice – while totally relaxed chickens picked around along the path.

To sum up: well, what is one to make of Kelvedon Hatch? It's not actually that easy to say. It promises a thrilling Cold War experience. But what seriously detracts from what the place could be is the scruffiness of the exhibition, it's jumble-room character, its "unattendedness" and, above all, the silly mannequins. And while I tried to see the funny side of all those aggressive warning signs on the walls, I know from many reviews that a lot of visitors find them decidedly off-putting. All this should be sufficient hints for the bunker museum's owners that there is plenty of room for improvement!

Meanwhile, I can only presume that the experience of this "secret nuclear bunker" will be more worthwhile for novices. But for those who have seen other Cold War sites before it's likely to be less exciting (but see e.g. Hack Green).

That said, if you come equipped with the right kind of a sense of humour, it can still be a highly entertaining place to visit – if not always for the right reasons. But still.
 
 
Location: off the A128 road just north of the village of Kelvedon Hatch in Essex, southern England, Great Britain.
 
Google maps locator: [51.6724,0.2555]
 
 
Access and costs: by car only; a bit hidden, as you would expect, but these days sufficiently signposted; not exactly cheap for what you get, but not too excessively overpriced either.
 
Details: to get to Kelvedon Hatch you really need to have your own means of transport. From the M25 London Orbital get onto the A1023 (NOT the A12!) at junction 28 in the direction of Brentwood. In Brentwood turn left onto the A128 towards Chipping Ongar. Or, from the M11, take exit 7 and head to Chipping Ongar on the A414. From Chipping Ongar proceed towards Brentwood along the A128. Look out for the brown tourist signs saying "secret nuclear bunker" (which amuses some passers-by – how can something be secret if it's signposted? … well, maybe they should have said "formerly secret", but I suppose that has less marketing appeal …). Eventually you come to a larger sign by the main road inviting you to "visit the vast ex-government secret nuclear bunker" with arrows pointing towards the car park and entrance. It's the same approach as that to a "rope run" that's advertised in parallel. This approach road gets a little rough but is alright for ordinary cars if you go slowly. Eventually you come to a large sandy car park; and from there you have to walk through the woods for a few minutes, as signposted.

The entrance to the bunker is through an ordinary-looking house, but once you're inside it's clear it's a bunker. There is no ticket office – instead, signs tell you to pay your admission fee on exit into the honesty box provided in the canteen.

As you enter you are supposed to pick up an audio-guide – called "wand" here … just one of many bizarre little elements. There is a version for adults and one for kids. I had to try three machines unsuccessfully until I found one that actually worked. But then it was straightforward enough to use.

For speakers of languages other than English there are leaflets that provide a summarized story of the bunker in a number of foreign languages, which you can use in parallel with the audio-guide or read later. I picked up a German language one to check out later and found it for the most part to be decently translated (somewhat surprisingly, I admit). But I can't vouch for the other languages.

You would think that the use of an audio-guide is, as is normal, optional. Not here, though. There's a whole series of warning signs in and around the entrance area aggressively admonishing you to pick one up or not to proceed! Similarly, there are frequent warning signs telling you that you are constantly being monitored on CCTV! In fact, when you finally get to the canteen, there is a small CCTV operation board with a couple of small screens, but I didn't see anyone monitoring these monitors … so it's probably just part of the bizarre and exaggeratedly threatening tone that the owners of the site apparently decided on (for whatever inexplicable reason).

A totally crazy rule is stipulated regarding photography. Again, you are aggressively warned that you can't take pictures without first purchasing a permit. But, like the entrance fee, you can in actual fact only pay for this at the end of the tour – into the same honesty box as for "admission", which you can't access until you get there. So the rule doesn't make sense. (Or are you supposed to first go through the whole thing without taking pictures, then pay for the permit and proceed to go through it again for photography?!? And if so, should you then pay the admission fee twice? … There simply is no logic to it.) Most people therefore appear to ignore this warning and decide at the end of the tour whether they want to honestly pay the extra 5 GBP photo permit fee or not (see, for instance, the reviews on TripAdvisor – in this case, a few of them are actually quite illuminating, for once).

Note that the tour includes various steps and tight corners, so it's not suitable for people with significant mobility problems/wheelchairs.

Also note that you come out at a different location from the entrance.

Opening times: daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. (to 5 p.m. weekends and bank holidays); in winter, 1 November to end of February open only Thursdays to Sundays 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Admission: 7 GBP (under 16-year-olds 5 GBP), to be paid at the end of the self-guided tour into an honesty box on the counter of the canteen/shop.
 
 
Time required: The "official" estimate is one to two hours. If you use the audio-guide to the full, and watch all the videos, two hours is indeed much more likely (it might even take a little longer). But if you are a bit more selective, you can be out again in even less than an hour (I saw a family of four rushing through without even caring to pick up an audio-guide and hardly pausing at any point in the exhibition for any length of time – they probably took only 15-20 minutes, if that …).
 
 
Combinations with other dark destinations: nearest would be London – but you wouldn't want to drive there in your own car, so it may actually be a better idea to carry on to other places in Great Britain outside the capital.

Thematically, Kelvedon Hatch is in the same category as Scotland's secret nuclear bunker and Hack Green in Cheshire, in North England. See their relevant entries for direct comparisons.
 
 
Combinations with non-dark destinations: See London and Great Britain in general.
    
 
 
  • Kelvedon Hatch 01 - hidden in the woodsKelvedon Hatch 01 - hidden in the woods
  • Kelvedon Hatch 02 - approach pathKelvedon Hatch 02 - approach path
  • Kelvedon Hatch 03 - old flying bomb outsideKelvedon Hatch 03 - old flying bomb outside
  • Kelvedon Hatch 04 - bunker entrance disguised as an ordinary houseKelvedon Hatch 04 - bunker entrance disguised as an ordinary house
  • Kelvedon Hatch 05 - bunker entranceKelvedon Hatch 05 - bunker entrance
  • Kelvedon Hatch 06 - long underground corridorKelvedon Hatch 06 - long underground corridor
  • Kelvedon Hatch 07 - mobile dosimeters hanging from the wallKelvedon Hatch 07 - mobile dosimeters hanging from the wall
  • Kelvedon Hatch 08 - blast doorKelvedon Hatch 08 - blast door
  • Kelvedon Hatch 09 - another level downKelvedon Hatch 09 - another level down
  • Kelvedon Hatch 10 - vintage communication gearKelvedon Hatch 10 - vintage communication gear
  • Kelvedon Hatch 11 - videoKelvedon Hatch 11 - video
  • Kelvedon Hatch 12 - Maggie listeningKelvedon Hatch 12 - Maggie listening
  • Kelvedon Hatch 13 - jumble with SpitfireKelvedon Hatch 13 - jumble with Spitfire
  • Kelvedon Hatch 14 - operations roomKelvedon Hatch 14 - operations room
  • Kelvedon Hatch 15 - basement machine roomKelvedon Hatch 15 - basement machine room
  • Kelvedon Hatch 16 - lots of scruffy dummiesKelvedon Hatch 16 - lots of scruffy dummies
  • Kelvedon Hatch 17 - scruffier stillKelvedon Hatch 17 - scruffier still
  • Kelvedon Hatch 18 - another MaggieKelvedon Hatch 18 - another Maggie
  • Kelvedon Hatch 19 - dummies in protective suitsKelvedon Hatch 19 - dummies in protective suits
  • Kelvedon Hatch 20 - how we were supposed to survive WWIIIKelvedon Hatch 20 - how we were supposed to survive WWIII
  • Kelvedon Hatch 21 - medical stationKelvedon Hatch 21 - medical station
  • Kelvedon Hatch 22 - but if all is too lateKelvedon Hatch 22 - but if all is too late
  • Kelvedon Hatch 23 - dormKelvedon Hatch 23 - dorm
  • Kelvedon Hatch 24 - that is probably why you should not take high heels into a bunkerKelvedon Hatch 24 - that is probably why you should not take high heels into a bunker
  • Kelvedon Hatch 25 - canteen and gift shopKelvedon Hatch 25 - canteen and gift shop
  • Kelvedon Hatch 26 - light at the end of the tunnel - way outKelvedon Hatch 26 - light at the end of the tunnel - way out
  • Kelvedon Hatch 27 - aerial mastKelvedon Hatch 27 - aerial mast
  • Kelvedon Hatch 28 - sign by the main roadKelvedon Hatch 28 - sign by the main road

 

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