When we left the house armed with a satellite navigation device and some paper maps in case the worst happened, it was a nice day. As we approached our destination the sky darkened. Iron grey clouds rolled in and the landscape became more desolate. By the time the car crunched to a stop on the gravel car park, it looked like we had arrived in a post-apocalyptic dystopia, albeit one that shared a parking area with a Zorbing centre and a paintballing arena.
I may have revealed a bit too much about our location already. It’s supposed to be a secret. Even the website isn’t specific about the location. Granted there are signs on the roads, but it doesn’t even tell you what roads to go on to see the signs. Like I’ve said, it’s a secret. Once you get on the right road, even the big signs say “SECERET NUCLEAR BUNKER, THIS WAY.”
Yes, it was to Essex’s secret nuclear safe house that this museum adventurer and a few companions journeyed to. Partially motivated by the Mayan prophecies of the end of the world (and thermo-nuclear war being the most likely way the world will end) and partially motivated by wanting a day out we decided to track down the most likely form of survival/quirky place to entertain us for a few hours.
We reached the entrance, a lonely cottage, the type usually seen in the better type of slasher films and approach the doorway. Already the visit was slightly unnerving, had the bomb gone off already? Where was everyone? The door creaked open. Was there a friendly face to reassure us that in fact, the worst had not happened and humanity was still alive and kicking?
Nope. Just a wire cage, some faded audio guides and an unsettling reminder that we were being watched.
I think I saw this film and it didn’t end well.
Instead of heeding the warnings of Hollywood and escaping while we still could, we delved deeper into the bunker, with our obligatory audio guides leading the way. You had to have to have a guide, the signs said so:
“IT IS NOT OPTIONAL
DO NOT PASS THIS POINT
WITHOUT A WAND.
THIS REALLY DOES INCLUDE YOU.”
(I would have taken a photograph so you wouldn’t have to take my word on this, but to take pictures you had to pay £5 for a permit. I kid you not.)
Although the bunker was only officially decommissioned in 1992, around the time the Soviet Union ceased to be a threat to the UK, but the signs stressed upon visitors that it could still be reactivated. Walking through the labyrinthine corridors, you’re guided around the bits where a Maggie Thatcher mannequin communicates to the nation from a studio and treated to public service videos advising the best ways to survive the aftermath of a nuclear attack (before being told that all this would be needless busy work while you died a slow irradiated death).
The Secret Nuclear Bunker has the makings of a really interesting museum but the people running seemed to have stopped caring about the place at some point around 1996, which is when we deduced the audio guides were installed. From then, they seemed to have taken a very hands off approach.
There isn’t even anyone to collect the admission fee at the end of your visit. Just an ‘Honesty Box’ with an Orwellian warning to Pay Up Or Else.
On the concept of the Honesty Box the owner has said “I like to think most people are fair and honest,” that the CCTV “encourages people to be more honest than they might otherwise be.”
But why not just employ someone, or even have a volunteer on a front (or in this case back) desk? Well, the owner has an answer for that too: “When I worked out that we needed to pay someone £60 a day to sit at the entrance of the tunnel and sell tickets, I realised it was a waste of money.”
So, a waste of money to have someone welcome the visitors and explain how things work? Really?
“But from our point of view,” continues the owner, “The object is to save us money and man power so we can devote ourselves to more important things.” Well, the money being saved hasn’t been ploughed back into the museum; half of the audio guides weren’t working properly – but there was no one around to report this to!
You know what? If someone does decide to push the Big Red Button, I won’t be rushing to the bunker.
If you’re curious, admission is £7 for adults.