Nestled one hundred feet below the military base at Basil Hill near Corsham, and fifty feet above I.K. Brunel’s Box Tunnel that was cut through the limestone hills in the 1830s linking London to the South West, lies a decrepit relic of the Cold War. The nuclear bunker – codenamed ‘Turnstile’ – was the British Government’s emergency base outside of London, with the ability to order retaliatory nuclear strikes in the event of aggression between the West and the Soviet Union. The thirty-five 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 twenty years.
Despite fastidious and highly secretive planning, the Turnstile project 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 two hundred-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. (See Peter Hennessy, The Secret State: Whitehall and the Cold War. London: 2003)
TURNSTILE is juxtaposed with a montage of extracts from the Protect & Survive public information videos that were made by Richard Taylor Cartoons in the in 1970s and ’80s. The series of twenty short films escalate in the gravity of their content, from futile ideas for creating a DIY fall-out shelter to advice on disposal of bodies.
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.