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Page last updated at 09:45 GMT, Wednesday, 7 October 2009 10:45 UK
Going underground in Holderness
Denis Price
By Denis Price
Local writer and historian

A former Cold War nuclear bunker has become a tourist attraction.

Nestling near the Holderness coast, RAF Holmpton was built as a communication and radar centre.

From 1984 to 1991 it was a wartime command centre, designed to survive a nuclear strike.

Since then, the base has been scaled back after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Status board
The operations room tracked the damage from nuclear strikes

It's an innocent enough direction when you think of it: "Go straight through the village and take the first right past the George and Dragon".

It could have been a direction to a school sports day, a church wedding or a village fete but this guide to RAF Holmpton had more dramatic echoes.

Our destination on this dark autumnal evening was a sinister relic of Cold War confrontation, RAF Holmpton's nuclear bunker.

Approaching the isolated site, there was little to see on the surface other than a modern brick built guardroom and reception area within its own well manicured perimeter, with nothing to indicate the existence of the vast 35,000 square feet complex almost 100 feet underground.

The ladies group I'd been invited to join had selected this award winning tour and invited husbands and partners to share the experience of viewing this previously secret subterranean world, which had played such a crucial role in the nation's defence for over 50 years.

Our imposing guide ran a tight ship, shepherding our group down into the concrete air conditioned bowels of the installation as our route took us ever downward through massively thick blast proof doors.

Communications room
The communications room dealt with coded messages

We viewed the three operations rooms, a communications centre, computer rooms, an exhibition commemorating the first 25 years of radar, kitchens, dormitories to house around 80 personnel, canteens and a small hospital, all reflecting the operationally changing roles of the site and providing every facility to sustain life and operational activity for several weeks in the knowledge that 100 feet above, the world had become a wasteland.

As a further reminder of a world where Mutually Assured Destruction was a real possibility, we were ushered into the eerie presence of a de-activated nuclear device resting neatly in its custom made box, as innocent as a shiny new vacuum cleaner. It seems ridiculous I know, but I was glad to move on.

To elaborate further on the bunker's resilience our guide mentioned that other than a direct nuclear hit, survival was possible for its occupants, with personnel emerging to periodically check on surface conditions.

A direct hit would instantly turn the bunker and its occupants to dust creating a vast crater and totally destroying everything within a three mile radius. 'Even the George and Dragon', said a voice, 'that's terrible'. We laughed weakly.

Our guide provided a running commentary on the site's history mentioning its initial close links with the nearby RAF Patrington radar base and subsequently, after extensive refurbishment in the 1980's, becoming the national headquarters for Royal Air Force Support Command.

Bearing in mind the frugal and strictly functional nature of this subterranean lifestyle it was interesting to view the cramped Officers' Mess where the one table, set for dinner, was highly polished with the Mess silver much in evidence. One of our group, a Royal Navy veteran, likened it to life on a submarine, we were certainly deep enough!

RAF coats of arms
The base was home to a number of RAF units

The tour culminated in an audio-visual presentation depicting potential Cold War flashpoints including Berlin and the Cuban Missile Crisis and the effects of nuclear explosions, all adding weight to the need for installations such as RAF Holmpton's bunker.

With this presentation being held in the main operations room still equipped as if for imminent nuclear attack, the tension and unease of Cold War confrontation was skilfully re-created.

As we thoughtfully trekked upward to the gloom of the autumn evening, many voiced their concerns over the protection offered by the bunker to its occupants and their feelings in the knowledge that their families were above ground and totally vulnerable, a disturbing thought indeed.

My own reaction was one of relief. I was glad to have done the tour and listening to the group I knew they'd enjoyed the experience. We'd all emerged wiser and more aware of the immediate past.

The bunker had served one purpose and now it was part of history like the George and Dragon. We'd enjoyed the visit to one and now we agreed it was time to visit the other.

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