In 1985, the British government went around building a few nuclear bunkers. Surprising timing, as Reagan and Gorbie were cutting back on nukes. Five years later, the Cold War ended in stalemate. Or maybe the West won. Funny how that looks now. Three years ago, an enterprising group of gentlemen turned it into southern England’s largest cannabis farm, growing £6 million of weed in total secrecy. Genius.

The history of British nuclear bunkers, for a child of the Cold War, is utterly fascinating. In East Yorkshire, I spent a memorable afternoon with my father underground. Inside the bunker beneath RAF Holmpton, you can see exactly how the bunker was when it was still functional. It’s a scary place. Dark and dingy, hundreds of military personnel would have hidden inside for weeks at a stretch, even if there was no nuclear attack. If there had been a strike, they would have hidden there for weeks or months.

All across the East Yorkshire coast are gun placements, remnants of a more prosaic war. The point is that here in the UK, here in Europe, the debris, the stale leftovers of WW2, WW1 and the defences built for the Cold War are never far away. This is even more striking in the south of the country. In the south east, there are still many redundant air bases used for the Battle of Britain and the famous bombing raids. Along the south coast, our military dockyards, In Derbyshire and Lancashire, the remnants of training runs: the practice reservoirs used for Dam Busters.

Back to our weed farm, and we find that they were stealing electricity from the national grid to power their lamps and heaters. The bunker in question is known, oddly, as Regional Government Headquarters (RGHQ) Chilmark. It was a civil defence bunker. Although there are a lot of military assets in south west England, this is not one of them. It was designed to house the regional government for south west England if the nukes got real. It was closed 7 years after it opened, in 1992, a white elephant on the grand scale. It was sold, incredibly, in 1997.

This is a topic that I could research all day long, and thankfully, a proper researcher called Steve Fox has done all the work for us. His incredible site is well worth a read.

There are a number of strands that make this story relevant now. The threat of nuclear accidents, or deliberate strikes, in North Korea shows we might have been a bit quick to shut down our bunkers. That they then fell into the hands of landowners, presumably in the unlikely event they could be redeveloped, is surprising. They’re all in the middle of nowhere, almost by definition. Nobody would want a house above a vast concrete subterranean subsidence magnet. Nobody would find the money to dig the concrete out and set the land back as it was. And so this one fell into disuse. We can only applaud the gang for their incredible imagination. They could have gotten away with it far longer.

About Author

Clint Kilham has lived and worked in Whitechapel since the bad old days. He's watched its gentrification with a mixture of glee and despair. These streets inform his acerbic assessments of culture of all kinds. Yes, Clint lives to review the good, the bad and the ugly on the page and on the stage.

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