Looking for romance? Head down York’s nuclear bunker

24 Oct 2012 @ 9.30 pm
| News
Intimate spot… the Cold War Bunker

A trip underground brings back fearful and funny memories for Jayne Dwyer – and turns into the perfect date

A year ago, if somebody had told me that a romantic night out would consist of a trip down a Cold War bunker, I would have retorted: “Yeah right, if that’s true, I’ll eat my rationed Spam.”

Yet last Thursday night I found myself, hand in hand with Ed, treading the time-line in Acomb’s very own bunker. Ed has learned that the way to my heart is a cheap night out, a bit of culture and something on the quirky side.

We have been planning a trip to the bunker since we met in the pub and his first words to me were, “Did you know there is a bunker in Acomb?” It wasn’t the most conventional of chat up lines, but it worked for me.

Ed had found out about the bunker on the very day we met in December 2011. I think I have always known about it.

I was born in 1968 and my dad was still fearful of a Russian invasion. He feared lots of things in those days but Cuba still haunted him and the bunker was a blot on his suburban landscape.

My mum’s relationship to the bunker was different, was based on her love of “a bit of a drama”. I remember our walks to Acomb fondly as “the walk of doom”. We passed the bunker regularly. En route, we would also pass the police station where “naughty people are locked in a cell with no biscuits”.

We were usually off to the dentist to sup strawberry flavoured gas, where the lights would go out and I would have lucid dreams about the Magic Roundabout, before waking to a mouthful of blood and a tooth to take home for the fairies.

Inside the bunker, the maps are ready to plot the bomb blasts

My mum, for reasons only she will fully comprehend, felt that it was necessary to remind us of the bunker every time we walked by. I often wondered how she knew. In those days, it wasn’t painted green as it is now, but a pale grey that would merge with most skies.

I knew the story of the bunker as well as I knew my Ladybird readers. I knew that only the politicians would be allowed in when (not if) the big bomb dropped. Ordinary people (Aunty Betty next door, the people that served us sausage rolls in Hagenbach’s, my daddy, my little brother… and me) would all die from fallout. Simple.

And, if by any chance we didn’t, we would all grow extra limbs and fight each other for berries. The future was grim.

So, when and how did this tale ever have a chance of becoming romantic?

Well, lots has happened since the Seventies. Probably the most reassuring of all is that the bunker in Acomb, now run by English Heritage, and other bunkers across the country have been turned into museums.

They are no longer needed and even the volunteers, the Royal Observer Corps (ROC), have hung up their rather fetching uniforms.

I still fear all things about war, but now I try to feel the fear and do it anyway; try to put everything in context. Since January I have looked forward an opportunity to get down the bunker with my boyfriend, to embark on a visit, as I do all our days out, as another little adventure. The bunker is also in walking distance of our local, and that helps.

The bunker is open all year, but this week it hosted a photography exhibition by Graham Cook, marking 50 years since the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Graham has photographed several bunkers across Yorkshire. His photographs, he insists, were not intended to catalogue bunkers but they provide a fantastic historical record and our visit made me realise how little I knew about “our” bunker.

One of Graham Cook's evocative pictures on display at the York bunker

Entombed underground, you are acutely aware that this was a place intended to prolong lives: humankind, in fact. Paradoxically, that cannot help but make you think of death.

One of the most mesmorising parts of the display is an instruction leaflet on how to survive the blast. When I was at secondary school, one of our lovely teachers let us watch When The Wind Blows as a treat. I have yet to thank her.

The forgiving side in me has concluded that, as it was Christmas, she had mistaken the film for the equally sad, but not quite so traumatic story of Whistle Down The Wind. (For those of you that have not watched either: Whistle Down The Wind is a delightful story where Hayley Mills meets Jesus in a barn; When The Wind Blows is a quaint little cartoon, starring two cartoon figures, a husband and his wife, who are preparing for the imminent bomb to drop).

I asked Graham about his photographs. He is a local man and the bunker has been part of his own heritage. I wondered if he was compelled to photograph them because of a fascination with all things nuclear. He said not.

One of the most striking pictures is of a an instrument to measure radioactive fallout. The device was used to hold a piece of photographic paper. The paper behaved in a similar way to a pin-hole camera. If a bomb were to drop, the blast would expose an area on the film. The blast would be measured and its distance recorded by plotting the exposures.

Graham was intrigued how photography could be used to record a bomb blast. At the same time he became interested in photographing the bunkers, monuments to destruction, because of the life that now grows around them.

"Graham's photographs remind us that wildlife flourishes against these harsh places"

Graham’s pictures and the permanent exhibition remind us that until 1991, the ROC members would have spent several days in the bunker at a time, carrying out procedures and gathering data. Sleeping and living conditions would have been cramped, the beds (we noted) hard as boards, and you would have to have a good sense of humour and a sense of camaraderie to cope in an environment where there are no home comforts and no windows.

Even in these conditions, Graham told me, there were rumours of romances developing amongst the ROC volunteers.

Graham’s pictures remind us that wildlife can flourish against these harsh backdrops and romance can also bloom in the most unexpected of places. On Friday, October 26th, the bunker opens up its canteen for its Cold War Film Club and a screening of The Spy Who Came In From The Cold.

Ed and I will be there, making a scramble for the back row.

The photographer’s view

Jayne is right: the above image is of the mounting post for the Fixed Survey Meter, which measured the radioactivity of the surrounding area. However in a number of the pictures you can see a small metal
‘mushroom’ shape. It was this that inspired me to begin the project.

It’s the mount for what is called a Ground Zero Indicator, which is a metal drum with small holes in each side, containing photographic paper. When a bomb went off, the flash would expose a dot on the
paper, recording the bearing to the explosion and the elevation, ie height of the bomb. This information would then be phoned in to places like the York bunker itself for triangulation with information from other posts.

But essentially, the GZI is a simple camera designed for no other purpose than to record the destruction of the world. I thought it would be an interesting idea to turn that on it’s head,
take my (more up to date) camera back to these places and record the landscape and posts themselves that were thankfully not destroyed.

In the course of the project, I tried to gain an emotional contact with the locations and the posts themselves, getting a strong sense of duty, and stoicism – the post are still there, doing their duty,
braving the elements, even though most of us know nothing about them – sort of a parallel with the Royal Observer Corps themselves.
Hence the accompanying text to the works were quotes from oral history interviews I carried out with former post members themselves. I thought it more appropriate that to go with visual impressions of the posts now, there should be memories of what it was like to be in them back then.

Graham K Cook