Nestled 100 feet below the military base at Basil Hill near Corsham, and 50 feet above I.K. Brunel’s Box Tunnel that was cut through the limestone hills in the 1830s linking London to the South West of England, lies a decrepit relic of the Cold War. The nuclear bunker – codenamed ‘Turnstile’ – was the British Government’s alternative seat outside of London, with the ability to order retaliatory nuclear strikes, in the event of aggression between the West and the Soviet Union. The 35 acre complex that was built into disused stone quarry galleries was equipped with infrastructure and provisions to support up to 4,000 personnel in self-sufficient isolation for three months.

The quarry was used during the Second World War as an ammunition dump, an RAF command centre and also as an aero engine factory. The site underwent conversion into a bunker and command centre in the 1950s, prepared with the latest equipment and communications technologies. Cover was blown of the facility in 1982, although it was not publically decommissioned and declassified for another 20 years.  Despite fastidious and highly secretive planning, the Turnstile operation was flawed: The facility was not designed to accommodate the families of those who were intended to man the bunker, which would have forced some personnel to refuse the order to scramble. Also, despite the bunker being accessible via a spur line from the Great Western main line at the entrance to Box Tunnel, it would have been very challenging to muster and transport the 200-plus defence and cabinet staff from London to join the others already assembled in the bunker, in the event of incoming missiles. Furthermore, it is very likely that the Soviets knew the location of Turnstile.

Whether or not its masters would ever have manned the facility, the bunker remained in a state of readiness, and to a certain extent still does. Although the generators may be rusted, and the communication systems rendered defunct, the stockpiles of office furniture, stationery, waste-paper baskets, floor polish and toilet brushes are an unsettling reminder of how prepared our leaders were for Armageddon. With that said, the image of life in the bunker for the 4,000 soldiers, scientists and civil-servants, hand-picked to decide the fate of the world above, after they had dined on their last supper at the end of the three months’ rations equally does not bear thinking about.

The future of the bunker is uncertain. Enquiries have been made about the possibility of using the facility as a vault for data, and even as a store for vintage wines. However, the location of the bunker – below an active military base – has obvious practical implications which are restrictive to commercial or even public uses. It seems most likely that the artefacts and infrastructure will continue to crumble and decay ever more, and eventually be sealed off from the outside world completely.

Jesse Alexander