In the second instalment of her Cold War in Concrete series, written exclusively for CABLE, Julie McDowall visits the Barnton Quarry nuclear bunker at Corstorphine Hill in Edinburgh. She details the facility’s purpose during the Cold War, its subsequent decline, and its renaissance as the result of a dedicated restoration project.
I was poking at the weird thing on the floor, kicking at it, scuffing my foot over its hard shape.
The bunker had no mains electricity. Instead, lamps were strung along the walls like giant, grubby Christmas lights. They fizzed quietly with power from the generator. We were also carrying boxy little lanterns, just in case the juice cut out. Despite all this illumination, I still couldn’t make out what that strange stuff on the floor was.
When Grant More agreed to show me around this ruined bunker in Edinburgh, I was apprehensive. Barnton Quarry had been abandoned after the Cold War. There had been occasional activity at the site, with plans to turn it into a shellfish farm or luxury flats, but these came to nothing and the bunker was left alone, tucked away from the main road down a wooded path.
But not everyone forgot about the old bunker. Thieves knew it contained a telephone exchange rich in copper wire and they broke inside to strip the machinery. They even made off with the bunker’s huge blast doors, each weighing one-and-a-half tons, made of high-grade steel and worth a fortune in scrap metal. With the bunker now lying open, local kids got in and used it as a spectacularly dangerous play area – Grant admits to being one of them – and over the years Barnton Quarry was wrecked, smashed and vandalised. Finally, it was set on fire.
Deep inside the bunker, everything was black, jagged and perilous. Dark streaks ran down the concrete walls, sudden holes loomed at you from shadowy floors, piles of charred debris had to dodged, and Grant went striding ahead, issuing instructions over his shoulder to skip, jump and hop as we made our way down through its three ruined levels. Scampering behind him, I tried to keep up and look brave. Most bunkers I’d visited had long ago been turned into museums and came with gift shops selling books and model planes. They had cheery cafes dishing out cappuccinos and Toffee Crisps. These bunkers were not empty, they were not black, and they certainly did not come with a hard hat and safety advice.
So it seemed obvious that such a place would contain oddities like this weird thing on the floor. I was crouching down, examining it like David Attenborough; its hard shape crept across the ground like the pattern of some alien carpet. Grant kicked at it with his boot and said it was melted glass.
The fire raged for five days and was so fierce the glass panels in the bunker’s offices and canteen melted, pouring down the walls, and then hardened on the floor in weird, gnarled shapes.
When the bunker was set on fire, the heat was intense. Piles of tyres had been dumped inside and a truck rammed into the entrance tunnel, presumably to feed the inferno. When the firemen arrived, they quickly saw it was hopeless, and stood in the tunnel listening to explosions coming from deep below the earth; this was metal expanding in the heat and blowing chunks of concrete off the walls. The fire raged for five days and was so fierce the glass panels in the bunker’s offices and canteen melted, pouring down the walls, and then hardened on the floor in weird, gnarled shapes.
Nuclear bunkers shouldn’t destroy so easily, you might think, but none are indestructible. Even the mighty Cheyenne Mountain bunker in Colorado wouldn’t withstand a direct hit, and its rooms rest on massive coiled springs so the complex might absorb a nearby blast wave. But a direct hit? No way.
Barnton Quarry wasn’t even designed for nuclear attack. It was initially a surface building assembled for the RAF during the Second World War. Then, in 1952, three floors were built underneath and it became a Sector Operations Centre (SOC), co-ordinating information from local radar stations, but it quickly became redundant as the new jet age produced planes too fast for the old radar methods and there was no longer a need for large SOCs.
In the 1960s, Barnton Quarry got a new purpose. It became a Regional Seat of Government (RSG). Knowing London would be a prime target in a nuclear war, central government made plans to leave the city and disperse authority around the country – assuming they had more than four minutes’ warning, of course. But planners always helpfully allowed for weeks, if not months, of warning, estimating that an international conflict would gradually escalate to nuclear war. In this intervening phase, called the “precautionary stage”, Ministers plus specially chosen civil servants and figures from industry, science, the emergency services and the BBC, would disperse throughout Britain to these RSGs, making sure each region had a handy little kernel of government after the Bomb dropped.
The existence of Britain’s RSGs were top secret until 1963 when a group of activists broke into the RSG in Reading. Calling themselves Spies For Peace, they printed a dossier explaining what these bunkers were for, and listed the address of each one.
The existence of Britain’s RSGs were top secret until 1963 when a group of activists broke into the RSG in Reading. Calling themselves Spies For Peace, they printed a dossier explaining what these bunkers were for, and listed the address of each one. They sent it to newspapers, peace groups and politicians and it caused an uproar with the public asking why the government was building bunkers for itself but not the population, and whether the existence of these bunkers meant nuclear war was regarded as inevitable? This led to protests at Barnton Quarry, although the bunker was probably empty at the time apart from a bewildered janitor as it was only to be staffed in a period of international crisis.
In such a crisis, 400 people would have sheltered there for up to 30 days trying to govern Scotland, attempting to organise food and medicine, broadcasting information from the bunker’s tiny BBC studio, and maintaining law and order. The man in charge would have had been the “Regional Commissioner” and, according to a 1981 Panorama episode with Jeremy Paxman, this man would have had “more power than he could ever have imagined in his grossest dreams or nightmares.”
In such a crisis, 400 people would have sheltered there for up to 30 days trying to govern Scotland, attempting to organise food and medicine, broadcasting information from the bunker’s tiny BBC studio, and maintaining law and order.
Grant is now leading a team of volunteers to restore Barnton Quarry. Since I visited, things have improved drastically. Glass-blasting has scoured the bunker clean of its rust and blackness, the rooms have been re-assembled, and everything has been painted in its original colours. The dedication to authenticity is such that they’re even repairing the old air filtration system. “It’s a labour of love,” Grant says.
And when the bunker is restored to its previous perfection, what then? The team plan to transform it into a museum telling the story of Barnton Quarry, with particular emphasis on reaching young people who might regard war as something safely locked in history. As we picked our way through the debris, I tried to imagine this vast space filled with glass cases and stiff mannequins but Grant has other ideas.
“Mannequins?” he says. “That’s gone! The kids aren’t interested in that. One of the key things we’re looking at is interviewing the old RAF guys who worked here. We can’t have them down here all the time, telling their story. It’s impractical, as is getting one of us to dress up as a Fighter Commander and walk the kids round. So we’re looking at holographic projection. Clone these guys! Try to bring it all to life!”
So the burnt truck has been hauled out, the blackness scoured away, the rust sanded off, and the place restored with a maddeningly slow precision only bunker buffs will understand. But even so, these most dedicated of grafters still can’t shift that melted glass from the floor. Grant says they might need to hire a concrete grinder but I hope they leave it there as a reminder of how this place was nearly lost, and to prompt us to look after our Cold War heritage. There are no monuments to mark the era and warn future generations of nuclear war, so these glorious, freakish, frightening old bunkers must do the job. Thanks to Grant and his team, we still have Barnton Quarry.
Julie McDowall is a freelance journalist, writing about books, TV, and the Cold War. She is currently writing a book on how Britain prepared for nuclear war. You can find her on Twitter @JulieAMcDowall or online at www.juliemcdowall.com
Keep up to date with the Barnton bunker’s restoration project on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/BarntonQuarryRestorationProject/
Feature image: The entrance tunnel to the Barnton quarry bunker, after the fire. © Barnton Quarry Restoration Project.