Bonkers about bunkers in former MAD Cold War world

PUBLISHED: 18:45 17 March 2011

Uncovered: The former Royal Observer Corps monitoring post at Cley which is now a bird hide.

Uncovered: The former Royal Observer Corps monitoring post at Cley which is now a bird hide.


As Japan battles against the threat of nuclear catastrophe, Steve Snelling discovers a grim fascination in a book that sheds light on Norfolk’s subterranean heritage born out of a doomsday-laden era.

In a monumental survey of Britain’s Cold War bunkers, photo-journalist Nick Catford’s rare passion for the country’s underground heritage brought him to Norfolk during more than two decades charting the remarkable remnants of a conflict that risked global annihilation.

He has journeyed the length and breadth of the country, exploring miles of once secret subterranean structures that were designed to ensure a measure of control and organisation as well as the maintenance of vital defence systems and essential power supplies in the event of a nuclear holocaust.

His modern-day archaeological quest, chronicled in a compelling if somewhat chilling new tome, has taken him deep beneath the surface to photograph those grim places considered vital to the country’s ultimate survival, from labyrinthine bunkers intended to shield our military and political leaders to the radar and air-defence installations supposed to counter the potentially catastrophic strikes.

It has been a prodigious effort that has seen him visit every last one of the more than 1,500 three-man Royal Observer Corps monitoring posts that once proliferated the British countryside like a half-hidden rash and a truly gargantuan undertaking which has its roots in an unusual fascination for all things underground that stretches back to the 1970s.

“The first site I visited was around 1987 and, although the Cold War was still going on and a lot of bunkers were still in use, some had long since been abandoned, having been rendered obsolete and sold off or put to other uses when the threat changed from bombs dropped by airplanes to missiles.”

One of the more interesting of the 1,563 posts around the UK is the three-man monitoring station turned bird hide at Cley-next-the-Sea.

But all are enduring reminders of a virtual war and a deeply disturbing past in which a multiplicity of subterranean refuges and command posts were never employed in anger thanks, as Nick pointedly notes, to “the deterrence of mutual assured destruction”. Or MAD for short.

For the full story of Norfolk’s Cold War legacy see the EDP Sunday supplement in this Saturday’s EDP.

Subterranean Britain: Cold War Bunkers, by Nick Catford, is published by Folly Books, priced £24.99.

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