Advertisements

Category Archives: London on Film

Droogs About Town: London Locations Featured in ‘A Clockwork Orange’

Released in 1971 and directed by Stanley Kubrick, A Clockwork Orange was by far one of the 20th century’s most controversial films.

Poster for A Clockwork Orange

Based on Anthony Burgess’ 1962 novel of the same name (the title being inspired by the old Cockney phrase “as queer as a clockwork orange’), the story is set in a dystopian London of the near future and centres on Alex DeLargea sadistic youth with a passion for Beethoven- who leads his gang of ‘droogs’ through the city on nightly sprees of ultra-violent mischief.

Alex De Large stares at the camera in the film’s iconic opening shot…

After committing murder, Alex is finally locked up… but is soon offered a quick way out when he agrees to act as a guinea pig for the Ludovico Technique; a controversial brain-washing programme designed to suppresses the desire for violence (and something which caused actor Malcolm McDowell great pain and discomfort when it came to portraying these disturbing scenes). 

Alex undergoing the Ludovico Technique

In Britain, thanks to high levels of upset whipped up in the press, the film version of A Clockwork Orange gained such an intense notoriety that Stanley Kubrick himself withdrew his work from circulation; a self-imposed ban which remained right up until 2000.

Stanley Kubrick

So strict was this embargo that, in 1993 when the Scala Cinema in Kings Cross attempted to screen the film, Warner Brothers took the owners to court; an action which led to the cinema going bust thanks to the immense legal costs involved. 

Considering A Clockwork Orange was filmed entirely around London and the Home Counties (including areas such as Borehamwood, Kingston-Upon-Thames, Elstree, Radlett, Brunel University, Bricket Wood and Wandsworth prison) it’s rather ironic that British audiences were forbidden from viewing Kubrick’s film for so many years.

Here are some of the film’s most prominent London-based scenes:

The Chelsea Drugstore

Whilst Alex’s nights are spent committing all manner of horrific acts whilst tanked up on drug-laced milk, his days are rather more civil… devoted to indulging his love of classical music; especially that of the “lovely, lovely Ludwig Van” Beethoven.

In one of the film’s scenes, we follow Alex, decked out in his dandiest threads as he peruses his favourite record shop (click below to view):

This scene was filmed in the basement of the Chelsea Drugstore; a modern building fashioned from glass and aluminium which opened on the King’s Road in 1968.

The Chelsea Drugstore (Image: Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea)

Open 16 hours a day, 7 days a week, the Chelsea Drugstore was an avant-garde, mini shopping mall, its three floors boasting eateries, boutiques, a record shop, bar, newsagent and chemist.

It also boasted its own ‘Flying Squad’… an exclusive team of women clad in purple castsuits who were employed to make unconventional home deliveries on their fleet of motorbikes. Groovy! 

Map showing the location of the former Chelsea Drugstore.

The Chelsea Drugstore was also name checked in The Rolling Stone’s 1968 hit, You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” (Speaking of The Stones, Mick Jagger was once earmarked to play Alex DeLarge in an earlier proposed adaptation of Burgess’ novel which never came to fruition…)

Although the Chelsea Drugstore ceased trading in 1971, the shops in the basement (as featured in A Clockwork Orange) remained in place until the late 1980s whilst the rest of the building became a wine bar.

Today, the building is occupied by the Chelsea branch of McDonalds.

The building which once housed the Chelsea Drugstore… now a McDonalds. (Image: Google Streetview)

*

Thamesmead

Despite the inclusion of the psychedelic Chelsea Drugstore, A Clockwork Orange is mostly set against a cold, dystopian backdrop; a precedent set in Burgess’ original novel as the following excerpt, in which Alex and his gang are evading the police, atmospherically illustrates:

Just round the next turning was an alley, dark and empty at both ends, and we rested there, panting fast then slower, then breathing like normal. It was like resting between the feet of two terrific and very enormous mountains, these being flatblocks, and in the windows of all the flats you could viddy like blue dancing light. This would be the telly. Tonight was what they called a worldcast, meaning that the same programme was being viddied by everyone in the world that wanted to… and it was all being bounced off the special telly satellites in outer space.

In order to realise Burgess’ bleak, futuristic vision Stanley Kubrick turned to the modern, Brutalist architecture which was sprouting across London during the era in which the book and film were created; architecture which, as early as 1962, Anthony Burgess was already predicting would provide fertile ground for many unforeseen social ills.

1962 first edition for ‘A Clockwork Orange’ by Anthony Burgess

In Burgess’ novel, Alex lives in “Municipal Flatblock 18a”, a block daubed in obscene graffiti and plagued by vandalism.

To represent this domestic seediness, Kubrick took his film crew to the newly built Thamesmead Estate; a vast, sprawling development near Woolwich in South East London.

Screenshot of the Thamesmead as depicted in A Clockwork Orange…

Built on a former military site, the Thamesmead Estate, which was optimistically promoted as being the “town of the twenty-first century”, was built piecemeal between the 1960s and 1980s.

Thamesmead’s Binsey Walk, as featured in ‘A Clockwork Orange.’ (Image: Wikipedia)

One of the film’s most famous sequences takes place on Thamesmead’s Binsey Walk.

Map depicting location of Binsey Walk.

Walking alongside the man-made Southmere Lake Alex, whose leadership has just been challenged, decides to show his droogs whose really in charge (click below to view):

In recent years, the Thamesmead Estate has been used as a set for the E4 comedy, ‘Misfits.

*

York Road Roundabout, Wandsworth

Map depicting York Road Roundabout.

One of the most notorious scenes in Kubrick’s adaptation takes place at the very beginning of the film and involves a vicious assault on a hapless down and out as he lies drunkenly in a grimy, pedestrian subway.

The scene was filmed in the warren of walkways beneath York Road roundabout, which sits at the southern foot of Wandsworth Bridge.

Typical of the architecture of the time, York Road roundabout was laid out in 1969 and was pretty much brand new when Stanley Kubrick set up his cameras. 

Stanley Kubrick with Malcolm McDowell on set below York Road roundabout, 1971 (image: Stanley Kubrick Archive).

Today, the labyrinth beneath the roundabout is just as bleak and unwelcoming as it was some 40 years ago…

The subway today…

Modern Droogs? York Road Roundabout subway, November 2012…

More recently, a large atom-esque sculpture of sorts has been plonked down on the roundabout, becoming something of a local landmark.

York Road roundabout’s atom sculpture.

Apparently inspired by the 1950’s Atomium sculpture in Brussels, but kitted out with a bulky and intrusive advertising gantry, the tangle of metal doesn’t really do much to beautify the 1960s concrete…

York Road Roundabout

Looking up at the gantry.

*

Albert Bridge

As for the unfortunate tramp who was attacked by Alex and his droogs below Wandsworth’s grimy roundabout… don’t worry, he gets his own back…

Map of Albert Bridge

After recognising the recently released (and now, thanks to his treatment, defenceless) Alex DeLarge glumly contemplating a view of the Thames, the tramp leads his own rabble in a revenge attack on the former and now defenceless yob, right beneath Albert Bridge; one of London’s most beautiful river crossings (click below to view):

Albert Bridge… one of the more traditional sites uses in ‘A Clockwork Orange.’ (Image: Wikipedia)

*

Want more on Stanley Kubrick’s London? Then check out this post: A Monolith in St Katherine Docks

***

Advertisements

A History of the Elephant & Castle (Part Two)

This is the second part looking at a history of the Elephant and Castle area of south London. To read the first instalment please click here

The Elephant at war

Being a major transport hub with a large civilian population, the Elephant and Castle was bombed heavily during World War Two. 

Londoners sheltering at Elephant and Castle tube station during the Blitz.

The worst raid to hit the area took place on the 10th May 1941, when bombers deliberately targeted the south London district in order to create a ferocious firestorm which rapidly engulfed the Elephant. 

A painting depicting the night in which the Elephant was consumed by flames.

After the war much of the Elephant lay in ruins, a shadow of its pre-war days when Londoners had flocked there to indulge in its many shops and places of entertainment.

Bomb damage at the Elephant, 1941. The destroyed building had been a branch of ‘Woolworths’.

A concrete renaissance

For over a decade, the Elephant remained pretty much in tatters, pitted by numerous bomb craters which provided exciting playgrounds for local kids.

In March 1958, the down-at-heel area received a welcome dash of American glamour when rock and roll star, Buddy Holly played to a huge audience at the Elephant and Castle’s Trocadero. 

Buddy Holly, backstage at the Elephant & Castle Trocadero, March 1958. (Image by Bill Francis, from Patrick Sweeney website)

To read more about Buddy Holly’s time in London, please click here.

*

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, town planners were hard at work, drawing up plans for a massive redevelopment of the area… for Elephant and Castle was about to become a huge canvas for some of London’s most prominent post-war architecture.

Model of the Elephant & Castle proposals from 1956 (image: Thecarandtheelephant)

The importance of the vast rebuild was summed up in 1956, when the London County Council stated:

The Council regards the Elephant and Castle as one of its most important comprehensive reconstruction projects. A unique opportunity is presented for creating a new shopping, business and recreational centre for south London, for effecting major traffic improvement and for realising fine, civic design.

The new road-layout was the first part of the scheme to be implemented, with two huge roundabouts stamped down during the 1950s.

The Elephant & Castle road system circa 1990s (image: Knowledge Rush)

This prominent road system was highly representative of the mood of planners at the time, who envisioned a future in which the motor car would be king. 

Consequently, little thought was given to those who had to traverse the Elephant on foot and, to this day, pedestrians are forced to cross the area via a series of gloomy, narrow subways.

Subway beneath the Elephant’s northern roundabout.

It was during the 1960s that the majority of the Elephant was rebuilt; the architects’ love affair with concrete and stark urban planning resulting in the heart of the district evolving into a landscape more akin to communist East Berlin

The very first building to be completed at the new Elephant was the Faraday Memorial; an avant-garde electricity sub-station, clad in stainless steel and plonked in the middle of the northern roundabout.

The Faraday Memorial

Unveiled in 1961 as a taste of things to come, the Faraday Memorial can still be seen in its original location, un-disturbed by the many millions of vehicles which have roared around it during the past fifty years.

The Faraday Memorial, overlooking the northern roundabout.

Next to pop up was Alexander Fleming House which opened in 1963.

Alexander Fleming House. Now known as ‘Metro Central Heights’, the exterior of this 1960s development has since been fitted with blue and white cladding. (Image- Design Museum)

Originally designed as a triple set of office blocks, Alexander Fleming House has since been converted into luxury apartments and renamed Metro Central Heights (or, as some like to jokingly call it, Metro Sexual Heights; a reference to the many young, urban professionals who now reside there!)

The modern trio of towers was designed by Erno Goldfinger, the infamous architect noted for his bold, uncompromising buildings… and egotistically fierce temper!

Erno Goldfinger, who was highly influential in London’s post-war architecture.

To find out more about the curmudgeonly Goldfinger, please click here for my earlier post on the ‘Trellick Tower’ which is widely regarded as his true masterpiece.

*

Lost cinemas

Goldfinger would go onto wield great influence over the Elephant and Castle.

In 1966, he incorporated an Odeon cinema into Alexander Fleming House… which was rather fitting considering the complex was built on the site of the former Trocadero which had been demolished a few years after Buddy Holly’s celebrated visit. 

Goldfinger’s 1960s design for the Odeon cinema (image: Cinema Treasures)

Designed in the Brutalist style, the modern Odeon contained seats for over 1,000 movie-goers.

Sadly, the cinema was demolished in 1988 which is a real shame as, given current trends, I have a feeling it would have found a new lease of life as an independent picture-house had it been allowed to remain.

The Odeon at Elephant and Castle in 1983- by which point it had been renamed the ‘Coronet’ (many thanks to flickr user dusashenka for this rare image)

The Odeon’s foyer in 1988, shortly before demolition (many thanks to flickr user, dusashenka).

*

Tickled pink

In 1965, yet another Goldfinger creation was unveiled in the area… the Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre.

The Elephant & Castle Shopping Centre in 2012

At the time, this new building was revolutionary; the first covered shopping complex in Europe.

The Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre, 1960s (Image- BBC)

Locals however who, for generations had patronized traditional local shops and markets, were slow to embrace the new concept.

When the shopping centre first opened, trade was painfully slow with just 29 out of 120 shop units being occupied.

Inside the Elephant Shopping Centre, 2012

Originally providing three floors for trade, it quickly became clear that this was one floor too many.

In 1978 the centre was purchased by Ravenseft Properties who promptly converted the third level into office space. As a spokesman for the company said at the time, “one has to do something when one has inherited such a horrible asset!

In 1990, the powers that be thought it would be a good idea to paint the Elephant and Castle shopping centre bright pink, a colour which remained on the building until very recently. 

The shopping centre during its pink phase (image- Evening Standard)

I’ve often wondered what the idea behind this lurid scheme was. Not that I have anything against pink, but I was under the impression that a ‘pink elephant’ was something one only saw after a few to many sherries!

Some rather creepy pink elephants can be seen in the following excerpt from the 1941 Walt Disney classic, Dumbo, in which the lovable little elephant hits the booze rather too hard…

The Heygate Estate

By far the largest post-war project to grace the Elephant and Castle was the vast Heygate Estate, which was completed in 1974 and provided homes for 3,000 people.

The Heygate Estate

Designed by Tim Tinker, the Heygate Estate was very much a product of its time; a huge housing scheme conjured on an incredibly ambitious scale, and designed with the best of intentions in mind.

They Heygate Estate under construction, early 1970s (image- ideal homes.org)

Aiming to make the estate an oasis of calm away from Elephant’s characteristic roar of traffic, Tim Tinker placed the tallest of the tower blocks around the perimeter, encircling and shielding smaller accommodation and areas of greenery within the middle.

When viewed from above, it is indeed surprising just how much greenery the Heygate encompassed.

Bird’s eye view of the Heygate Estate (image- Google)

However, as with many estates, the utopian ideal quickly became sour, with the modern innovations having quite the opposite effect of their intended purpose.

The towering apartment slabs isolated their inhabitants, slicing off communities rather than drawing them together, whilst the windswept walkways and secluded communal areas provided fertile breeding ground for crime and anti-social behaviour.

Unfortunately, unlike other examples of London Brutalist architecture- such as the Trellick Tower, National Theatre and Barbican Centre- the Heygate has received no revival and is currently undergoing demolition.

Thanks to the large amounts of asbestos present, the destruction is a slow process, not expected to be completed until 2015.

One of the large Heygate blocks, empty and boarded up…

An abandoned Heygate bridge.

At present, the drawn out wrecking of the Heygate has made the old estate quite an atmospheric place; a vast, inner-city chunk of quiet decay, rather like something out of a post-apocalyptic film.

A deserted service road…

One of the Heygate’s low-rise homes… now in a rather sorry state.

Despite being eerily deserted, at the time of writing, a tiny handful of residents are refusing to leave their homes on the Heygate in protest at Southwark council’s compulsory purchase order.

A traditional phone-box, looking just as dilapidated as the estate behind it…

This small but hardy bunch include an elderly couple with a leasehold… both of whom are in their 80s and, like their small band of remaining neighbours, see the Heygate as their rightful home…

Graffiti on the moss-ridden garages.

A large, decaying block…

*

The Elephant on Film

Thanks to its present state, the Heygate has proved a popular location for movie makers in recent years, with Southwark Council raking in a substantial £91,000 in filming fees since 2010.

Two films to make substantial use of the estate are Harry Brown and Attack the Block.

Released in 2009, Harry Brown stars Sir Michael Caine who, just like Sir Charles Chaplin a generation before, spent his tough working-class childhood in the Elephant and Castle area.

In Harry Brown, the popular actor plays a pensioner after whom the film is named; an ex-soldier living out his twilight years on a hellish council estate.

Sir Michael Caine on-set at the Heygate Estate (image: Le Cool London)

One night, Harry has to rush to hospital, where his wife is dying.

Despite the emergency, he is too terrified to take a short-cut as the subway in question is plagued by gangs and drug-fuelled violence. His failure to take the shorter route means that he is unable to be at his beloved wife’s bedside when she passes away…

This, coupled with the murder of his friend who also resided on the estate, leads the pensioner to turn vigilante…a very grim film indeed.

*

Being a comedy, Attack the Block is one of the more cheery films to emerge from the Heygate Estate.

Released in 2011, this movie centres on a gang of youths… who find themselves having to defend their turf against an alien invasion!

As can be seen in the following trailer, the Heygate Estate played an integral part in the story:

More recently, the Heygate has been used as a backdrop for World War Z; a horror film in which the world is gradually taken over by zombies.

Due for release in 2013, the film stars Brad Pitt, who spent time on the estate filming some rather terrifying looking night scenes…

World War Z… the zombie apocalypse comes to Elephant and Castle…

*

The Heygate is not the only the only area of the Elephant and Castle which has been used as a filming location.

In the 2011 film, The King’s Speech, Iliffe Street, just south of the junction towards Kennington, was used to represent a road in fashionable West London.

Iliffe Street, used in the award winning film, ‘The King’s Speech’ (image- Google Streetview)

In 1968, the then brand new shopping centre featured in The Strange Affair which starred Michael York.

In 1987’s gangster film, Empire State, the young protagonist and his moll live in Draper House, their balcony overlooking the Elephant’s large twin roundabouts.

Looking out over the Elephant… screen shot from the 1987 film, ‘Empire State’.

In 1982, the Elephant loaned its streets to the music industry when Brook Drive– which lies just west of the junction behind the Metropolitan Tabernacle, was used to film the video to the much-loved hit, Come on Eileen by Dexy’s Midnight Runners.

Please click below to view:

In the past year, I have had two fares to Brook Drive and, in both cases, each of the passengers stated how chuffed they were to live on the same street where this hit, which seems to be played at every single wedding reception, found a home for its video!

Below is a photo of the Brook Drive newsagent as it appears today:

Brook Drive, junction with Hayles Street where the famous music video was filmed.

Also in 1982, Dexys Midnight Runners released The Celtic Soul Brothers which was filmed on the other side of the Thames at the Crown Pub in Cricklewood- please click here to read more).

*

All change at the Elephant

Today, the Elephant and Castle is undergoing its biggest change since WWII.

A smashed up information board outside the Elephant shopping centre. Hopefully, such ugly scenes will soon be a thing of the past…

As part of a £1.5 billion scheme, the 1960s shopping centre is due to be demolished and replaced with a pedestrianized market square and green open spaces.

As for the Heygate Estate, once that has been fully knocked down, the empty land will be replaced with 2,500 new homes, of which it is sad 25% will be “affordable”… I suppose that means the other 75% will be unaffordable then…

Visions of the new Elephant

Overall, the change at the Elephant is estimated to take some 15 years.

At present, the most prominent sign of this slow evolution is the Strata Building; a new tower which replaced Castle House and has been nicknamed by some Londoners as the ‘Lipstick’ building. 

The Strata Tower, which stands across the road from the Elephant’s 1960s shopping centre

The Strata contains 310 luxury housing units, retail space at ground level and, most famously, three wind-turbines on its roof which are used for powering a small percentage of the tower’s utilities.

The Strata’s wind turbines

Wether of not these new developments will last longer than their 1960s predecessors remains to be seen… however, one thing is for sure- they are merely the next stage in the long and varied history of the Elephant and Castle.

***

Cold War London. Part Two; Bunker Mentality

The spying that went on in London and other cities was all part of a vast, complex game; an exercise in which the two mighty superpowers strived to gain the upperhand over one another.

Thankfully (and amazingly) the conflict they anticpiated for some 40 years never came to fruition.

But what if the Cold War had suddenly become hot? 

Mushroom cloud graffiti in Bermondsey

 

Authorities in both the East and West made preparations for a predicted Third World War; a conflict which would have almost certainly led to the use of nuclear weapons and slain civilization as we know it.

The British government were under no illusion- in a global nuclear war, London would have been a primary target.

As such, covert preperations were made; plans which sought to protect the upper echelons of government and maintain command over whatever ruins were left.

Most of these plans were, of course, carried out in utter secrecy. However, if you know where to look, evidence of these candlestine preperations can still be seen in London today.

*

‘Stompie’

First, let’s begin this tour with something a little out of the ordinary.

During the Cold War, East and West were locked in an arms race, both sides amassing vast stockpiles of the ultimate boys toys; everything from nuclear submarines to inter-continental ballistic missiles.

Thousands of tanks were also accumalated on each side of the divide; guns bristling and catterpillar tracks ready to rumble out in a head-to-head across the plains of Europe should war ever break out.

One such tank; a Soviet model, can be seen in London. Not in a museum as you might expect, but in a rather more unlikely setting…

The tank in question is a Russian ‘T34, and it can be found on the junction of Mandela Way and Pages Walk; backstreets off of the Old Kent Road.

Stompie in situ

 

The tank has quite a chequered history. It saw active service during the ‘Prague Spring’ of 1968, when it was rolled out to suppress peaceful protests against the leadership of the USSR.

Some 27 years later, the tank was put to more creative use when it was brought to London and employed as an extra on a film version of Shakespeare’s Richard III(starring Ian Mckellen and featuring scenes filmed at Battersea Power Station).

After its thespian role, the tank was purchased by Russell Gray; a property developer. The story goes that Southwark Council had refused Gray permission to build upon the land he owned, so, as a sort of spiteful protest, Gray took the tank and plonked it down on the empty plot, where it remains to this day.

Over the past few years, the tank has provided a canvas for various street-artists; each one creating their own fetching design for the old Cold War relic. The tank is also nicknamed ‘Stompie’, in honour of Stompie Seipei, the 14 year old South African youth who was brutally murdered in Soweto in 1989.

*

‘The Kingsway Exchange’

Had the Cold War ever become hot, the reprucusions for the UK would have been grim to say the least.

As a small island, densely packed with cities and military instillations, sandwiched between the USA and the USSR, Britain would have been devastated in a nuclear war, the death toll running into tens of millions, with the less fortunate survivors suffering from horrendous burns, injuries and radiation sickness.

The authorities realised this of course, and many bunkers were constructed across the UK in preparation for a Third World War. The sole purpose of these deep-level shelters was to protect the machinery of government, both at a national and local level, and space in such strongholds was strictly reserved for a limited number of politicians and civil servants.

Having said that, the bureaucrats did have our interests at heart to some extent.

In 1980, they released a short booklet to the public, entitledProtect and Survive’. Priced at 50p, the pamphlet suggested ways in which to safeguard oneself against nuclear blast and radioactive fallout; mainly by utilizing doors, tea-chests and cushions- rather like a child building an indoor den on a wet weekend!

Building a fallout refuge: illustration from Protect & Survive

A series of videos were also produced. However, unlike the Protect and Survive booklet, these were never released to the public and were only intended to be shown during a period of international crisis in which war appeared inevitable.

If such an occasion arose, normal TV programing would have been suspended, replaced by the BBC’s Wartime Broadcasting Service in which the 20 videos would have been played on a constant loop. As you can see from the example below, they were grim, eerie and their unsettling electronic jingle, created by the BBC’s Radiophonic workshop (then based on Delaware Road, Maida Vale) would’ve done little to boost confidence. 

Please click below to view:

Whilst we above ground struggled with makeshift protection and dinky, ‘Playschool’ esque advice, the privileged few would have been tucked up in their deep shelters, ready to bear witness to the end of civilisation as we knew it.

Although the majority of fortifications (such as the vast ‘Burlington’ complex in Wiltshire) were built in the countryside, evidence of bunker building can be spotted in London today; perhaps the most well-known amongst bunker-buffs being the ‘Kingsway Exchange.’

The Kingsway dates back to that other rapid period of shelter building; World War Two. It is formed by a series of long tunnels, stretching beneath Holborn, roughly in sync, and running below the London Underground’s Central line (apparently, the bunker is actually connected to Chancery Lane tube station via a private stair-case).

Evidence of the bunker is revealed in these ventilation shafts, which quietly stand guard as commuters rush by.

Evidence of the Kingsway Exchange bunker; vents on Newgate Street (left) and Holborn (right)

The Kingsway exchange was originally constructed towards the end of WWII in order to house government staff- civil servants from the Ministry of Works and London Civil Defence controllers. Experts from the ‘Special Operations Executive (a branch of M16, set up to help Resistance fighters battling the Nazis), were also granted office space here.

The squirriling away of these workers beside a busy tube station was not unique; General Eisenhower had his protected head-quarters located in a shelter beside Goodge Street station (just off of Tottenham Court Road).

After WWII, and with the emerging Cold War threat of atomic attack, the Kingsway was expanded and beefed up. Ownership of the bunker was  transferred to the General Post Office (GPO) who, at that time, were also responsible for telecommunications.

A large telephone exchange was set-up deep within the complex and a large percentage of civilian calls made from London passed through here.

More covertly, the London terminal of ‘TAT 1’; a transatlantic telephone cable, linked to the United States was established in the secure tunnel. This came online in 1956.

Because of this important communication link, the Kingsway Exchange played a key part in providing the infamous ‘hotline’ which connected the White House to the Kremlin. 

At its height, some 200 people worked in the Kingsway Exchange and in order to cater for this large workforce, the bunker contained a canteen and a bar- which claimed to be the deepest in the UK.

The fortification below Holborn also boasted its own artesian well, and fuel tanks capable of holding 22,000 gallons which meant, in the event of a nuclear strike, it could be locked down and run for up to six weeks.

Map showing the approximate location of the Kingsway Exchange

*

The GPO Tower

Back above ground, the GPO were also responsible for building a far more well-known London landmark- the ‘GPO Tower’ …. Otherwise known as the Post Office Tower or, as it’s called today… the B.T Tower.

For some 15 years, the GPO Tower was the tallest building in London (superseded by the NatWest Tower) and remains a famous site today, visible from many parts of the city.

The GPO Tower was celebrated for its revolving restaurant (run by holiday-camp giant ‘Butlins’ no less!), which made one complete revolution every 22 minutes.

A film depicting the restaurant as it appeared in 1966 can be viewed below:

Sadly, due to security concerns, the restaurant was closed in 1980 and the public have been refused access to the landmark ever since (with the exception of the annual Open House Weekend, when those wishing to visit must provide security details before entering a lottery-draw to win one of the coveted tickets).

The BT Tower today

Despite being firmly embedded as a household name and major London landmark towering over the city, there is something rather surprising about the GPO Tower….

Until 1993, it was classed as an official state secret!

This covert status meant that it was not allowed to appear on any map. Taking photographs was also a no-no, and its address on Maple Street in Fitzrovia, was classified. 

Why was this?

Well, the GPO Tower was in fact a key link in a system known as the ‘microwave network’ (nothing to do with the type of microwave you use at home to serve up a ready-made curry of course!)

Right up until the 1980s, the microwave network was responsible for transmitting television signals and other data- some of it military. The arrangement comprised of a link of transmitters, stretched across the UK from north to south; with towers similar to the London GPO erected in Birmingham (at Snow Hill) and Manchester (in Heaton Park).

Being extremely secure, the system was also known by the codename, ‘Backbone’ and, in the event of a nuclear attack, the resilient network would have provided vital communications for the government.

Quite how this would have worked, I’m not so sure- considering the searing heat and 500mph blast wave unleashed by a nuclear weapon, it is doubtful that any buildings (or indeed people) would have been left standing…

The route of London Underground’s Victoria Line (also constructed in the 1960s), runs considerably close beneath the BT Tower, and urban legends abound suggesting that it is secretly connected in some way. As is Buckingham Palace… but I suppose that’s another story altogether….

*

‘Q- Whitehall’

Going back below ground, there is inevitabely a myriad of tunnels beneath Whitehall, the seat of government.

However, although the exsistence of such a complex is taken as red, the exact details on what exsists are a little shadier.

The most documented facility below Westminster is a series of tunnels known as ‘Q Whitehall.’

Like the Kingsway exchange, Q Whitehall began life in WW2, and was extended during the 1950s. Documents related to the Cold War extension are still classed as secret, and will not be made public until 2026.

Essentially though, the tunnels which make up the Q Whitehall network are service tunnels, carrying secure communication cables and connecting various government departments. It stretches all along Whitehall, right up to Trafalgar Square– in fact, one of the entry points to the system is rumoured to be via Craig’s Court; a tiny alleyway less than 200 feet away from the Square.

As the development of nuclear weapons progressed from atom bombs to hydrogen bombs, it began to dawn upon politicians that a major city centre would perhaps not be the safest place to be during a nuclear war. The main government war HQ was therefore established outside of London; moving to Corsham near Bath, where a truly vast bunker; a small, underground town, was established and was only declassified in 2004.

*

Pear Tree House

Although central government would have fled the capital in the event of a nuclear war, local authorities were expected to stay behind and take care of their boroughs. Each council was required to provide their own shelter; most of which would have been rather makeshift affairs, hastily set up in the basements of town halls and civic centres.

If a Third World War ever did break out, plans were drawn up which would have involved the UK being divided into regional sectors; each forming a mini-kingdom of sorts, where the controller would have wielded total power.

London was designated as ‘Region 5’ and, due to its size, was sub-divided into four different sectors, each with its own purpose built bunker- one in Wanstead (North-East group), one in Southall (North-West group; the bunker being built beneath a school no less), one in Cheam (South-West group) and one at Crystal Palace (South-East group).

If you know where to look, the Crystal Palace bunker is still clearly visible and is one of the most unusual buildings in London…

Built in 1966, the bunker sits right in the middle of the large, Central Hill Estate… and right beneath a block of flats! The land upon which it sits was reclaimed from an old, WW2 bomb crater, created by one of Hitler’s ‘V2’ rockets; the prelude to the more advanced intercontinental missiles, which both the USA and USSR had poised at each other during the Cold War.

The bunker beneath Pear Tree House

The flat-block is called ‘Pear Tree House’, and can be found tucked away on the corner of Hawke Road and Lunham Road. Eight, two-bedroom flats sit above the nuclear shelter- although, of course, none of the residents living in them would have been allowed access had the four-minute warning ever sounded.

Due to its blatant location, Pear Tree House attracted much attention from anti-nuclear groups, and was picketed by CND during the early 1980s; their protest posters plastered over the heavy blast doors.

Slightly more innocuous view of Pear Tree House…

The bunker remained active right up until 1993 and, by all accounts, little has changed inside, with paperwork strewn everwhere, and large, ominous bomb-plotting maps still tacked to the walls. The bunker’s communication aerials are also still in place, clearly visible on the block’s roof.

*

Kelvedon Hatch

Pear Tree House, along with the three other shelters located within the London region, would have been answerable to a much larger bunker, which lay some 20 miles outside the city, deep within an Essex wood.

This bunker was known as ‘Kelvedon Hatch, and was built to accommodate some 600 people. Constructed in the early 1950s, the bunker eventually became known as the ‘Sub-Regional Headquarters’ for London.

Essentially, this meant that if a nuclear war had ever struck the UK, Kelvedon Hatch would have been in charge of governing whatever was left of the Capital.

The entrance to Kelvedon Hatch…disguised as a harmless looking bungalow 

Once inside the ‘bungalow’, this is the long tunnel which would have led the fortunate few deep underground and into the safety of Kelvedon Hatch bunker

The fortified shelter (like other regional centres built around the UK), contained a fully kitted out BBC studio, from which the regional controller would have been able to broadcast instructions and information to survivors (although whether or not anyone above ground would have been alive to hear his words is debatable).

In the immediate hours following an attack, the broadcasts relayed from this subterranean BBC studio would have been pre-recorded and, in 2008, the National Archives declassified one such script. Taped in the 1970s, its words are chilling to say the least:

This is the Wartime Broadcasting Service. This country has been attacked with nuclear weapons. Communications have been severely disrupted, and the number of casualties and the extent of the damage are not yet known. We shall bring you further information as soon as possible…

Kelvedon Hatch BBC studio

We shall repeat this broadcast in two hours’ time. Stay tuned to this wavelength, but switch your radios off now to save your batteries until we come on the air again. That is the end of this broadcast.

A full audio recording recreated by the late Peter Donaldson– the trusted ‘Voice of Doom‘ who would’ve read the transcript for real- can be heard by clicking below:

*

Safely stowed away in Kelvedon Hatch, the ‘Sub-Regional Commander (in peacetime, a high-ranking, local government councillor) would have been granted absolute power following a nuclear strike.

Emergency powers would have granted them the power to control food stockpiles (i.e withholding it from those who were ill or badly injured and therefore unable to work), rationing other commodities such as fuel, and organising survivors into conscripted work gangs. These workers would have been ordered to carry out all manner of tasks amongst the radioactive ruins; no doubt one of the jobs being the disposal of the countless dead.

*

Due to the high number of fatalities expected, sites for the largest mass-burial sites in London since the 1666 plague were earmarked; one of them being identified in this leaflet from 1982 (which can be viewed in the Imperial War Museum):

Anti-nuclear leaflet on display at the Imperial War Museum, revealing plans for mass-graves on Clapham Common

The Commander would also have been granted full control over law and order and, if any unlucky survivors happened to be caught looting amongst the rubble of London, emergency powers would have permitted their execution by firing squad.

Kelvedon Hatch, along with the rest of the UK bunker infrastructure, remained active right up until the early 1990s, and regular exercises were held in the Essex stronghold, in which the chosen few would spend the odd weekend acting out dress-rehersals for WW3.

Today, Kelvedon Hatch (which is just outside the Essex commuter town of Brentwood) is open to the public as a museum. If you fancy a visit though, be warned… it is an exceptionally creepy place, not helped by the fact that many of its rooms and displays are peopled by rather disturbing mannequins!

Dummies in one of Kelvedon Hatch’s rooms… (image: Gordon Joly, Creative Commons Licence)

*

Thankfully of course, none of these sites were ever used for their intended purpose, and they now sit quietly in the background, oblivious to most people.

I’ll end this piece though with a chilling montage of how things could have turned out…

The brief clip below is taken from a BBC documentary entitled A Guide to Armageddon.’  

Broadcast in 1982 as part of the scientific programme, QED’, the terrifying episode examined what would happen to London if a 1-megaton nuclear warhead was exploded above St Paul’s Cathedral.

Taken from the end credits and using WW2 photos and primitive (although convincing) special effects, the clip provides a chilling,  imagined view of a nuclear-destroyed London.

Please click to view. 

The full episode can be watched here.

Don’t have nightmares!