Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Down the hole

There were a number of things that became self evident as I began to get my thoughts together as a result of attending the Leeds study weekend. A real possibility of finding the route to assignment five in P&P and also another personal project that I hope to get to soon - an altogether different prospect!
The contemporaneous notes I made whilst listening to the presentation by Jesse Alexander suggested to me that I had enough to use at this site to develop a concept for the brief as required by the assignment.
A twenty foot ladder leads to an underground chamber 7' X 16' X 7' high

The images above are graphics that I have found that provide a "vision" of the type of environment that I have already experienced, having visited there a short while ago. I have contacted the management team and they are happy for me to come along and have photographs taken, especially as I have said they are welcome to any that I produce with unlimited rights (as long as I get accreditation).

I think it is worthwhile to write down my feelings that I had when I visited the bunker last week - we had some friends over from Australia and took them to a variety of places and we all thought it was very interesting. At one level it was intriguing, how the government of the day during the early 1950's decided, as a reaction to the developing Cold War, to instigate a network of nuclear bunkers and at the sites that had been developed for enemy aircraft for use by the Royal Observer Corps. Some 1564 bunkers were dug into the ground across the UK, most are now derelict - though I have recently seen one for sale on eBay for £9000! Freehold.
Pin-hole camera (white) behind which is the trap door to the nuclear bunker.
To the rear is the older ROC enemy aircraft spotting hut, set up during the second war.
This camera is part of the system known as the "Ground Zero Indicator", which has other overtones today.

On the other hand however I suppose the overriding emotion that I felt was futility. Here, in the concrete box twenty feet below ground were up to 4 men in a room too small to swing a cat in; sat in discipline waiting for the end of the world. The rations they were dealt would keep three men going for a maximum of two weeks, their protection level from radio active blast was 1000 - whilst the domestic house was rated at 25 - the air vents were sloped downwards to reduce the effect of radioactive fallout contamination. A measuring device would inform them how big the nuclear blast was, the pin-hole camera would tell where the bomb was detonated. These recordings, should they have ever been recorded, would probably not have been read by anyone in any case. In the unlikely event that these observers survived the attack and lasted the two weeks inside they would have had to decide between starvation and radioactive sickness as they exited their hole, to a world devastated beyond anything Hiroshima and Nagasaki experienced. Their homes would be ruins if still in existence, their families would, in all likelihood be dead or dying from horrific injuries. Their collective sense of duty to Queen and country can only be admired, but what dread thoughts must have coursed through their veins as they got call-out after call-out to man the post. Through the late '50's up to and including the "Bay of Pigs" crisis when the threat was palpable, what did these people think about? These men of the Royal Observer Corps would potentially be the witness, the observers no less, of their own fate, seeing the explosion on their instruments before the blast devastated the area around them, hoping for a change of wind that might take the fallout to other parts of the country or the world. I tried to understand how they were called to action, how they took to their posts and apparently they would be called, usually on the telephone, much in the same way as "Lifeboat men" have done and still do today. They had a special position that bound their employers to allow them to leave work whenever the call came and for the duration of their duty, fearing the approach of the Tupolev . I suspect as with  Lifeboat men they had some practise calls, but through the early life of these bunkers the calls would be real, as the Russian nuclear airborne fleet would continue to press the nerves of the West by flying closer and closer to Nato's borders. Any call could have been the "one". Maybe they had time to say goodbye to their loved ones, their families, their wives and girlfriends; maybe they didn't or chose not to.


  1. I can't keep up John...not had chance to read your previous post properly yet. And now you're marching on with this too, which incidently looks a fascinating subject and how relevant Jesse's work was to you seeing this now. Is the plan to photograph the space...who is management...I don't quite it a museum now or does it serve a purpose?

  2. Yes, Jesse's piece (much more rounded and fuller) was particularly inspiring and timely. Two things: I want to write and fulfill the brief as required by the assignment. To try and depict how the tools they had, the facilities they had and the purpose they undertook was essentially futile. But valiant and bravely futile – the opposite of vainglorious; I’m not really sure if this will come across and I may have to modify the brief to suit.
    I also want to experiment with photo video, I will record a lot of the soundscape and mix it with some of the images – not for the assignment but as part of the training for my other personal – probably documentary project, I'll go armed with a lot of questions and see what the volunteers say - they are ex ROC. We’ll see.

  3. Very purposeful and organised approach which I think should help to obviate this sense of futility you experienced. The latter fits with how you describe the reality of the endeavour. In a sense you'll be a witness of these men sitting deep below ground and it would be interesting if you could actually meet with some of them.


    1. Thanks Catherine. The volunteers that man the bunker are the same volunteers that manned the bunkers when it was operational. I shall ask whether they perceived the futility of it, to some extent I hope they didn't get a sense of that; but how much more braver/sense of duty they must have had to do so if they felt that redundancy of that purpose. Extraordinary I think.
      I really like your first sentence and hadn't thought of it like that, I will bare that in mind as I meet up with them early Saturday morning, much appreciated.