Inside a British Cold War bunker

If Britain had been attacked by a nuclear bomb during the Cold War, its government would have survived by retreating to a massive, 35-acre complex buried beneath the county of Wiltshire. I call it a bunker in the headline, but it was more like a small town—large rooms linked by roads, built on the site of an abandoned quarry. Known as Burlington, it could house 4000 people and feed them all for 3 months. It was also home a broadcasting studio and hospital.

The whole thing was kept secret up until its decommissioning in 2004. You can take a tour in the BBC news clip above, or check out the photo galleries and interactive maps on the BBC's Burlington site. With few upgrades since the 1960s, the place looks like a time capsule. An awesome, gigantic time capsule. It's easy to understand why the news presenter in the video is rubbing his hands together gleefully as he's about to get on the elevator to go down. I'd be excited, too!

Thanks to grosmarcel for Submitterating, and to Retronaut for posting pictures from the BBC galleries!

Video Link


  1. These folk were planning to have a nuclear war. I’m amazed that we and the Soviets didn’t blow ourselves to smithereens.

    1. In order to deter the enemy you have to take at least some measures to preserve continuity of government. The US had similar systems with the “Looking Glass” system for the president and the Greenbriar bunkers for Congress.

      And you must remember that while Cold War throw weights were impressive, nuclear war might have happened in stages. Tactical first, counterforce second, and countervalue third.

      A full three stage exchange of this type would have certainly been mass murder on the largest scale, but it might not have been quite as bad as you are imagining. 

      1. I’m well aware of the potential effects of a full scale nuclear exchange, having grown up with and served in the navy during the cold war….and I’m still amazed we didn’t blow ourselves up. We were all pretty sure that a some point someone would mess up and there would be a lot of smoking holes that used to be cities. Never been so glad to have my expectations unmet.

    2. I agree with Incipient Madness’s observation on detterence. Read “Thinking about the Unthinkable” or any of Kahn’s other works; they are fascinating and have a lot of insight that is not obvious to even smart generals or sailors (or activists!).

      As for them “planning to have a nuclear war”. No. Obviously they weren’t planning to have one. If they were they’d have had a heck of a lot more than just 3 months of food!!

      1. The difference between spending enormous sums of money convincing your enemy you are prepared for war and actually being prepared for, or planning to have, a nuclear war is extremely subtle.

  2. Are we supposed to believe that the Prime Minister was going to sleep on one of those cots like a schmoe? Let’s see Area 17.

  3. The work of these contingency command centres was supported by the Royal Observer Corps. This semi-civilian force formed a country-wide network of some 1500 small-scale bunkers. Its purpose was to observe and record data from across the country so that central command could track and triangulate the results of nuclear bombs dropping on the United Kingdom.

    I’ve uploaded a few pictures of one such ROC Bunker to the Boing Boing Flickr pool. The original image set is at the following link if anyone’s interested to see more :-)

  4. This story reminds me of the Avengers episode where Steed & Mrs. Peel go investigate sightings of ghosts in the English countryside, & stumble upon a hidden ‘enemy’ underground city, set up to take over Great Britain after a nuclear war.

  5. poor Andy Quinn. “Quinn! Congratulations! You’ve been named Mine Manager. Gather your things. You’ll spend the rest of the best years of your life underground with moldering office chairs.”

      1. I was thinking of the one under the residence.  I know people who live quite close by, and they claim the thing was continuously under construction for at least two years.

        Interesting link, thank you!

  6. For those who enjoy this sort of thing, I can wholeheartedly recommend the Canadian counterpart – the Diefenbunker museum in Carp, Ontario (just outside Ottawa). Very cool stuff.

  7. I love how the Goverment was going to be A-Ok but nevermind the General Population. Cause we all want to save the Goverement right… right?

  8. Just as a side note, the German government’s cold war bunker is now a museum site and open to the public. Well, actually, the parts of it that were not torn down. It’s near Ahrweiler in a lovely location. 

    Website (in German only):

  9. This whole area is riddled with underground quarries and cave systems, with access points hidden away all over the place. It’s been said that anyone getting into the remoter areas could wander for days; a mate was a Chippenham fireman who had been down in the underground areas on call, and said he’d hate to get lost down there. Copenacre, on the A4 just outside Corsham on the way to Bath has been decommissioned as a military stores depot, utilising the underground quarries and has in fact just been sold for development. The cave systems including old Roman workings are said to run from Bath north under the Cotswold scarp as far as Cirencester.

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