Kevin Booth, curator at English Heritage, on his favorite object from the collection
The York Cold War Bunker was built in 1961. It’s part of this great concrete network across the country of little observation posts that were essentially trying to plot... armageddon. They were looking for nuclear detonations in the British Isles, planning to pinpoint exactly where they occurred, what their power was, and what their impact was going to be. The bunker conforms to every stereotype you’ve seen in spy films or James Bond, and it’s full of quirky retro 60s design, fonts and features.
It’s our most recent and our most modern site and, yet, even though it’s only 35 years since it stood down, because of the shift in cultural and digital life over that period it just seems extraordinarily distant. People going around the site today, with access to the internet and smartphones, are bewildered that we thought we could combat nuclear conflict using little chinagraph pencils and bits of paper and traditional telephone lines spread out across these tiny pockets of the British countryside.
So my favorite thing isn’t so much one object; there are really lots of different objects in this space that I love, mainly the most humdrum. If a bomb exploded somewhere in East Yorkshire, say, then one or more of the little concrete posts out there would observe this, gather some data about it, and they would telephone this data into headquarters. A line of people called post-display plotters would be wearing headsets and would have taken down the information about the bomb’s position and orientation, writing it on tiny little paper dockets. Literally writing it down on a piece of paper using a pencil!
That piece of paper then gets passed to someone behind them who walks a couple of metres and hands it to another group of people who then use protractors and chinagraph pencils – crayons essentially – to build up a picture of exactly where in the countryside this has gone off. And I find that little piece of paper just such a strong symbol of the whole approach to our response to armageddon; a little piece of paper where you write in pencil the power of a huge, terrifying bomb. It’s so analogue and human.
But what appears to us as rudimentary and simple, and in some ways almost ludicrous, actually has its own failsafe built into it. If York Bunker was wiped out then there’d be another group in Preston or in Durham or in Lincoln or somewhere that would be picking up the same information. This kind of thinking is a mixture of: don’t over complicate it, keep it simple, combined with a ‘making it up as you go along’ approach. You have a system based on the goodwill of volunteers turning up to tiny little concrete bunkers spread all across the countryside and being willing to sacrifice themselves and give up their families in order to use incredibly basic equipment to try and stop this mass devastation.
It’s quite easy now to slip into mocking and, with the benefit of hindsight, to roll your eyes and raise your eyebrows and think, “it’s ridiculous.” Because, actually, for the first 15-20 years it was anything but ridiculous. It was a crucial part of telling the Soviets that we were prepared – even if actually the systems might fall over, or accidentally detect fireworks displays instead of bombs. It was as much propaganda as a practical operation.
It’s interesting to visit the bunker now, when the threat of nuclear war is a reality once again. I’m not sure if more people are visiting the bunker because of this, even anecdotally I don’t have that kind of information, but my suspicion is that it has a little more currency to it in the present moment. Once again, it has a real close, visceral impact on our emotions.