Preparing for Doomsday

The history and archaeology of a Cold War bunker at Gravesend: a research and reporting project

It has been a remarkable – and at times exciting – journey, beginning with the discovery in 1990 of a 13-room Cold War Civil Defence Control Centre under Woodlands Park, Gravesend.   This was built in 1954 and maintained during the first half of the Cold War as a command post for the coordination of local civil defence forces  in the event of an air attack, whether by conventional or nuclear weapons.

That this may form the basis of a new and more complete cut-away view of the interior of the bunker. (c) English Heritage

That this may form the basis of a new and more complete cut-away view of the interior of the bunker. (c) English Heritage

The second step along the way was a proposal in 1995 by the New Tavern Fort Project (later renamed Thames Defence Heritage) to the owner, Gravesham Borough Council, for a voluntary project to restore and refurnish the bunker for public access.  An enlightened council readily granted permission, leading to historical research to better understand the building and to inform restored layouts.  Parallel with this was a programme to collect appropriate historical artefacts and furnishings, sometimes involving long trips and challenging extractions from holes in the ground as well as from other bunkers no longer required by central or local government.  Before long the council generously funded the introduction of emergency lighting, a fire detection and alarm system, partial rewiring, as well as other works

Visitor booklet for the bunker

Visitor booklet for the bunker

The bunker received its first visitors in 2000 but its refurnishing and display continued to be strengthened.  Following discussions with Chris Pond MP, during 2004 (the bunker’s 50thanniversary year) a formal museum opening ceremony was attended by an Attaché from the Russian Embassy who helped unveil a commemorative plaque with the builder of the bunker,  George Rattray.  A little later and thanks to negotiations between Adam Holloway MP and the Ministry of Defence a menacing nuclear bomb casing was delivered for display to visitors.  The bunker became the most fully refurnished bunker of its type in Britain, made accessible to the public by volunteer guides from Thames Defence Heritage.  Its visitation went from strength to strength.  The Second World War-like ambience of the early Cold War period refurnishing led to the bunker becoming a backdrop to part of a Sean Bean motion picture, Age of Heroes.  However, more recently ground water penetration and flooding has led to temporary closure for remedial works.  Thames Defence Heritage and Gravesham Borough Council hope to re-open the bunker to visitors in 2015.

Although during his time as Director of Thames Defence Heritage the writer produced a research-based visitor booklet on the bunker, he is well-advanced with the preparation of an academic study, also for publication.  This should be helpful in strengthening and varying informational and interpretive outputs for this site at a number of levels.  He is delighted that former senior staff from emergency planning teams (who are also members of the Historic Defences Committee) as well as specialists from English Heritage have agreed to participate.  There may be others.    It is the aim to include enhanced graphics to further interpret the bunker, including a cut-away view of the interior, peopled as though in operational use.  Supplementing this may also be a strip cartoon of a ‘what-if’ scenario.

A look inside the visitor booklet for the bunker

A look inside the visitor booklet for the bunker

The writer thanks members of Thames Defence Heritage and Gravesham Borough Council for their steadfast support and participation in the historic development of the Cold War bunker for public access.

Victor Smith

Formerly Director of Thames Defence Heritage

January 2015

Any enquiries about obtaining a copy of the visitor booklet should be addressed to Sandra Soder of Thames Defence Heritage – sandrasoder@yahoo.co.uk