‘This is the Wartime Broadcasting Service. This country has been attacked with nuclear weapons. Communications have been severely disrupted, and the number of casualties and the extent of the damage are not yet known. We shall bring you further information as soon as possible.’
If the Cold War had gone nuclear, this is the chilling warning former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher would have broadcast to the nation. She would have given the radio address not from No 10 Downing Street, but from a secret hideout 100ft beneath the Essex countryside.
‘‘The bunker was near enough from London to be far enough away’, Mike Parrish, 76, tells Metro.co.uk.
‘It’s only 20 miles as the crow flies from the House of Commons. If London was attacked the River Thames, in theory, could have come up and flooded everything. The bunker was far enough from a potential blast area.’
Construction of the hidden shelter began in 1952, when post-war fears of a Soviet attack had taken hold within Winston Churchill’s Government. The Government paid local farmer Jim Parrish, Mike’s grandfather, £2,410 for 25 acres of his sprawling 2,000 acre estate.
‘They bulldozed a hill to make it,’ Mike continues. ‘Then put the hill back again. We farmed over it as though nothing had happened, so the Russians wouldn’t cotton on.
‘My grandfather had little choice in giving away the land to the Government, but was relatively happy with the arrangement. He’d fought two World Wars, he didn’t want to fight another.’
The bunker, in the village of Kelvedon Hatch – five miles from Brentwood – remained one of Britain’s best-kept secrets for decades. Whenever there were training exercises, the Army would travel in civilian clothes so as to not raise suspicion among the locals. There was never a convoy of vehicles, but instead a sporadic arrival of cars.
To the unsuspecting eye, the small dirt track off the A128 simply led to a small farm cottage owned by the Parrish family.
People were none the wiser about the hidden fortress beneath their feet.
A 109m tunnel stretched beneath the bungalow and into the main bunker, where generators had enough fuel to run continuously for at least three months.
Heavy doors, guarded at all times, were built to withstand any blasts and the unique ‘L’ shape of the corridor was created to deflect explosions.
A hospital bay, several bathrooms, bunk beds and a large canteen were built for the 600 people who would have gathered in the bunker if a nuclear bomb was dropped. Morbidly, several coffins and body bags were also stored in case anyone perished during their time underground.
Initially, the bunker’s function was to act as a secret base where the Armed Forces could improve Britain’s air defence network from.
‘Margaret Thatcher would have told us “normal folk” to get under our kitchen tables or hide under our beds,’ Mike explains as he gives Metro a tour around his bunker.
‘There was a campaign called ‘Protect and Survive’ which suggested the same. People had a bit of a laugh about the advice, because it was a bit pathetic. They were saying “what’s the point of me getting under my kitchen table, we’re going to die anyway.”
‘The real reason behind the advice was crowd control, it was about getting people to die in their home so the Government would know who they were. It was to stop people panicking and trying to break into places like this,’ Mike claims. ‘We, the public, are very gullible.’
If a nuclear bomb had been dropped, the Prime Minister at the time and his or her cohorts would have avoided the radiation for as long as possible in the secret bunker. Tins of food, piles of magazines and well-stocked water tanks would keep the inhabitants alive.
They would then emerge months later and attempt to establish some form of government across whatever remained on the earth’s surface.
‘The Prime Minister would have then worked to pursue a peace deal’, Mike explains. ‘Meanwhile it would be a Commissioner [most likely a promoted cabinet minister] who would run the “new normal.”
‘Central government would have been irrelevant until radiation levels dropped enough for politicians to grab back their power.
‘The UK instead was going to be split into regions with a different Commissioner in each, as the country rebuilt after a nuclear attack.
‘They would govern the area as a whole as if they were God. The Commissioner would allocate resources to any survivors and shoot potential looters or rioters.’
The heat of the Cold War eventually cooled in the early nineties. ‘The threat of world war is no more’ Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev had declared in December 1991.
In Essex, the secret bunker was gathering dust and costing the Government a hefty £3 million each year to guard and keep running. So, in 1992, the decision was made to decommission the site. By this point, locals had noticed the bungalow wasn’t all it seemed; they referred to the area as the ‘Hole in the Ground.’
In 1994, the secret bunker was bought at private auction by the Parrish family. These days, Mike’s son ‘farms the land’, while his father ‘farms the curious public’, charging £12 for an adult visit and £10 for a child. It’s easy to spend an entire day underground, getting lost in history.
Original computers, radio lines, books and maps remain in the Kelvedon Hatch bunker. There’s even radiation detectors which still work. For a spell in 1986 – following the Chernobyl disaster – they’d gently beep as people passed by the bunker overhead.
There’s a couple modern-day additions underground however, such as a mannequin of Margaret Thatcher which smiles eerily within the former BBC broadcast studio. The bunker isn’t so secret today either, with several brown road signs in Essex boasting of its existence.
Scout groups, ghost hunters and ‘a handful’ of conspiracy theorists have all passed through the shelter’s heavy steel doors since it opened to the public.
The likes of Essex-born Ryan Clark are among the celebrities who have popped over for a visit, and Davina McCall – ‘she was just lovely’, Mike adds – has nipped in to use the loo while filming nearby.
And every time the world teeters with international conflict, there’s a ‘flurry’ of new emails in Mike’s inbox.
In the wake of 9/11, he got 200 enquiries about reserving a space in his bunker. After the Ukraine war broke out, he got another 12. None of them came to fruition, perhaps due to the £500,000 deposit Mike asked for.
Until recently, ‘nuclear conflict’ was regarded as a worry of the old world. But now, concerns have been growing once more.
While doomsday preppers are learning survival skills and stocking up on food, Mike remains unconvinced on how society will fare if WW3 does break out.
‘People are on their knees when a storm or snow cuts off a community for a few days,’ the 76-year-old says.
‘It would be a totally different world than that in the event of an attack.
‘In Britain we still have this World War Two mentality of what we know about the Blitz. People think they’ll go underground then pop back up the next morning with a stiff upper lip and a bowler hat, and that things will go back to normal.
‘That won’t happen if war becomes nuclear. Not at all. You’d be underground for a very long time and need provisions to last you years, if not decades. The reality is you wouldn’t see the world for a long time.’
Today, as headlines about widespread conscription and WW3 fears sweep through the country, could the Kelvedon Hatch bunker ever come back into use?
Mike has vowed climb down into his bunker if nuclear war does break out, but he doubts he’d be joined by Rishi Sunak or any other politicians.
‘In the 90s, Maggie Thatcher and Mikhail Gorbachev got together and decided the Cold War was silly,’ Mike says. ‘The Russians became our friends, so there was no need to have these bunkers. As far as I know they [the government] haven’t built any more.
‘But of course, if they did, they wouldn’t want us knowing about it. I’m sure they have some sort of high-tech hideout somewhere near to London, like High Wycombe or Corsham, and that’s where the Prime Minister would go today.
‘For me, if a nuclear attack happened I would certainly come down into my bunker. My wife wouldn’t, interestingly. A lot of people say “I’d rather stand outside and be evaporated”.
‘But dying instantly would depend on how close you were to the potential nuclear blast. It’s more likely you’ll get hit with a heavy dose of radioactivity and spend several months dying slowly of leukaemia. In the meantime, you’d be fighting off maurading gangs who would be raping and pillaging for everything you’ve got.
‘I think the best thing to do would be to come down somewhere like this and choose when you want to die.’
Living in a bunker would be lonely and exhausting, and the time underground would have impacts on both your mental and physical health.
But for Mike, it’s worth the struggle.
He adds: ‘I think it is important that people take on that challenge. Human life is important, someone’s got to be here at the end of the day.’
To visit the ‘secret’ bunker, click here.
Do you have a story you’d like to share? Get in touch by emailing Kirsten.Robertson@metro.co.uk
Share your views in the comments below.