Last weekend was the Heritage Open Days event, when dozens of otherwise inaccessible (or expensive!) historical properties fling open their doors to the general public. This doesn’t just mean stately homes, but all sorts of smaller, less-well-known, or downright unusual venues. In previous years we’ve visited everything from Unitarian chapels to art installations in barns, and fascinating they’ve been too.
This year there was a new place on the list – the Cold War bunker under Kendal’s County Hall. The hall, built in the late 1930s to provide council offices when Kendal was still the county town of Westmorland, is already a listed building – partly because of its architectural style and partly because of that very history. And for the first time ever, the council were allowing people in to take a look around. It sounded so amazing that we cancelled all our plans for Saturday and shot into Kendal instead.
The bunker proved to be a lower ground floor, beneath the main council offices but still above ground – and it probably was amazing. Sadly, the people who’d organised the event had completely underestimated the number of people interested in secret Cold War history. They’d advertised on local radio and in the local press, and they’d even got the marketing department at Kendal Library to send a mail-shot out. The result was hordes. We arrived soon after it opened at 1pm, to find a long queue snaking through the car park, and quiet chaos inside. And more and more visitors kept on turning up.
Where about 40 had been expected, several hundred arrived. The building wasn’t designed to cope; corridors became clogged and the ventilation system blew a fuse. It was packed, uncomfortable, and very, very hot. And too busy to do more than one tour at once, which meant hanging round in the county archives room for the best part of an hour.
The staff did their best to keep their tempers, keep cheerful, and keep everyone informed. There were leaflets, books, and maps of the bunker scattered about, and we spent some time scaring ourselves silly reading those. (The absolute reality of potential nuclear war, back in the mid to late 1960s, was brought crashing home – a bomb on Manchester, for instance, would have wiped out my old family home.) But in the end we couldn’t take any more. We had a quick look round the bits that were still accessible, peering over shoulders, round heads and virtually through people’s legs. We saw some of the control rooms, and a plan of where the 40-or-so occupants would have lived and worked, and the ‘over-pressure’ ventilation system that would have protected them from radioactive fallout and kept them safe. And then we headed for the exit, and cooler air outdoors.
We’re hoping next year will be better. Hopefully the organisers will realise just how popular this sort of history is, and arrange timed entry and official guided tours. If they do, we’ll be at the top of the list, because it really was a window onto another world. Although if current world events keep going the way we are, we might just need nuclear bunkers all over again!