Burlington - the underground city that never was

A mere 34 acres in Wiltshire would have provided the UK government with a subterranean des res, and a refuge from war.

The city of Burlington. A modest city. Area: 34 acres. Some 60 miles of road. Four power stations, a reservoir, offices, laundries and a hospital. Population: one. And it doesn't show up on any map.

Burlington has been known by a number of different names over the last half-century. Stockwell. Chanticleer. Turnstile. Its first name was the bland but strangely sinister '3-site'.

Military planners who had been having fun modelling the effects of an all-out nuclear war had estimated that 132 nuclear bombs falling on major British cities would cause hundreds of thousands of casualties and disable all forms of government. In 1955, when William Strath of the Central War Plans Secretariat updated this report to include hydrogen bombs, his estimate for immediate deaths had risen to 12 million, with a further four million serious injuries – around a third of the population.

Plans were considered for providing public shelters, but the costs were prohibitive so the answer was to leave the people to their own defences but hide away a core of government officials and ministers in a new, underground city. There they could organise the massive retaliation that the doctrine of 'mutually assured destruction' required, then re-establish contact with the outside world and start explaining to the survivors what it had all been about when the radioactive dust settled.

The site chosen was the subterranean Spring Quarry, a source of fine Bath stone, near Corsham in Wiltshire and, in 1957, work began in earnest. Burlington was designed on a grid plan as a small-scale mirror of Whitehall, its streets lined with pared-down versions of peacetime ministries, complete with ministers and civil servants. This miniature government was provided with food, water and fuel to last three months, after which it was assumed it might be safe to venture outside.

Choose your area

The whole treeless city was divided into 24 areas designed to provide for outside communication and the basic welfare of up to 6,000 people. Area 21 held the communications offices of the intelligence services that would monitor above-ground events. Here they would communicate with 12 regional bunkers which in turn would be connected to a network of 1,563 monitoring posts manned by the Royal Observer Corps who would relay details of the unfolding devastation back to base.

Elsewhere, Area 8 contained the second largest telephone exchange in Britain which would be manned by GPO staff. Area 16 contained the BBC studio from where the Prime Minister would update his or her remaining people on the progress of the war, and Area 12 housed the industrial ovens of the kitchens making meals from the foodstuffs stockpiled in Area 9 which also housed a fully operational hospital and dental surgery. It was a bleak and utilitarian world.

At the centre of operations was Area 17 where politicians and senior officials would live and work, centred on the 'Map Room'. Here the Prime Minister had the only en suite bedroom in the entire complex. Notably there was no provision made for the PM's, (or any other official's), family members. Indeed it was only with the declassification of the site in 2002 that many civil servants even knew they had a desk reserved for them in Burlington.

Had the warning come they would have been expected immediately to leave their families to their fate and set off for their new underground home. With the blast doors sealed and protected by the living rock of the quarry and 100ft-thick reinforced concrete walls, it was expected that they would survive what was estimated as a two-day 'destructive phase' and the 'survival phase' of a month. The 'reconstruction phase' was rather optimistically scheduled to last just a year. Just what the inhabitants of Burlington hoped to reconstruct remains somewhat unclear.

Burlington was finished in 1961 and was put in a state of readiness. Journalists invited into the bunker after its declassification noted piles of chairs and tables still in their wrappers, thousands of toilet rolls, reams of paper and rows of 1960s telephones still in their boxes – all stockpiled for the unthinkable event. Fortunately that event never came, and when Margaret Thatcher was presented with an estimated bill of £40m for renovating the site in 1989 she deemed it unnecessary as the threat from the Soviet Bloc had disappeared. In 1992 the last few maintenance officers left and Burlington, the city that never was, never would be again. *

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