Friday, 23 August 2013

Turnstile: or, in case of nuclear apocalypse, please find tea trolleys and fish forks provided...

One of the fascinating things about the Cold war is the way it formed an underlayer to everyday life, in a geographical and psychological sense, having effects in the most unlikely places. The constant paranoia that typified the era was in some senses justified: in 1961, a ring of Russian spies was discovered in an unassuming bungalow in Ruislip, a commuter area just down the road from me in North West london (see below). They were found to be in possession of information regarding Britain's first nuclear submarine, and a high power radio transmitter for contacting Moscow.

In fact, it seems that my area was a bit of a hotbed for this sort of thing. Just the other side of my local park in another suburban street in Cassiobury is a vets surgery, which I have been to on many occasions, never noticing the semi sunken nuclear bunker in the back garden! This was a Royal Observer Corps outpost, which would have received and relayed information regarding Russian bombers as they approached UK airspace.

Incredibly, every day thousands of train passengers on the West Coast Mainline sped past one of the most important Cold War sites in the country, known variously as Turnstile, Subterfuge, Peripheral and Site 3 (got to love some good spy novel style codenames). This huge 240 acre bunker, hidden under the same hill which the railway's Box tunnel passed through, was officially named the Central Government War Headquarters, and would have housed whichever parts of the Government made it there in time in (dubious) safety in the event of a Nuclear attack. This was effectively a small town, equipped with everything necessary to house 4000 people for three months, featuring 60 miles of roads and its own subterranean lake to provide drinking water. The BBC has a great interactive map of the bunker (see below) the full version of which can be found at

Going into detail about the contents of the bunker is a bit beyond the scope of this blog, but some of its features mark it out as a charmingly British preparation for the apocalypse. A pub was considered in the original plans, but was dismissed on the grounds that it might be a bit weird to be sipping a pint when everyone you love had probably been burnt to a crisp above you. As I discovered at, the inventory specified that 1160 table forks should be provided, and an equal number of fish forks (God forbid being forced to eat fish with incorrect cutlery). A potato chipping machine and 11 tea trolleys were also provided. I'm being semi serious when I say most British people would, in all probability, give up hope if deprived of tea.

One final item of interest, again noted from, is the wonderfully eclectic literature requested by the BBC for use in its on site broadcasting centre. As well as the obvious choices like the Bible, the OED and Roget's Thesaurus, the dear old beeb also asked to be provided with "Cassell's guide to literature", the "Guide to the House of Commons", a volume named "Titles and Terms of Address" and a copy of "Who's Who". So, if any Lords, Dukes or Senior church members requested shelter from the Nuclear inferno raging on the surface, they could politely be denied admission with use of the correct title, and the survivors would emerge into the blasted nuclear wasteland with full plans for re-establishing a working House of Commons.