Protect and die: Cold War Architecture / from the archive / issue 4

[Historical note: Following the liquidation of the ‘Gorbachev revisionist clique’ and military action by Warsaw Pact forces to reinforce the GDR’s Berlin ‘Anti-Fascist Protection Barrier’, tensions between NATO and the USSR worsened rapidly. The Cold War became a hot one. Cruise missile attacks on Vladivostock and Minsk provoked SS19 ICMB attacks on Western targets. At 0837 on Monday, May 19, 1986, two 25 megaton nuclear devices detonated above USAF Burtonwood and Manchester city centre. Everything within a 4 mile radius of the city centre evaporated immediately with a 100% kill rate. Cars in Stockport melted around their drivers. Aircraft at the airport exploded. People in Chester and Blackburn were horribly burnt. In Sheffield and Blackpool they suffered second degree burns. Millions died or suffered terminal radiation burns. The government of Region 10 (Cumbria-Cheshire) was administered from Regional Seat of Government 10, in Fulwood Barracks, Preston. Martial law was declared; violators were summarily executed. Most of the North West was covered in a radioactive cloud of fatty soot contaminating agricultural land and reservoir supplies. There were no shelters and little health care for the mass population.]

Fantasy? This was UK Government policy until the early 1990s. Planning for the Cold War by the ruling elite was brutal indeed and this is reflected by its surviving structures. RSG 10 may still be there but UKWMO (Warning & Monitoring Organisation) Western Sector headquarters survives in Langley Lane near Preston (Grid SD 540365): a massive structure almost buried underground except for a guardhouse and ventilation blocks. Over a hundred people staffed it during exercises. It was stood down in 1991. It had a canteen, male and female dormitories, an elaborate control room, diesel generator, huge oil tanks, communications equipment, airlocks and stores. Imagine an underground three storey office block: a squat, giant tumulus brutally protecting a small elite, excluding us to die.

Architecture and engineering have always been the running dogs of wealth and power. Consider Edward I’s Welsh castles or George III’s Napoleonic refuge in Weedon. Modernism was no exception. There’s a direct line from Mendelsohn’s 1921 Einstein Tower, Potsdam, to the ‘streamlined’ Noirmont tower on Hitler’s Atlantic Wall in Jersey. Many Cold War structures have a ruthless functionalism, stripping away democratic pretentions with their raw power. Probably the most Ozymandian structures in Region 10 are the remains of the Blue Streak missile experimental testing site at Spadeadam, near Brampton, Cumbria (pronounced ‘spade’ ‘adam’).  Blue Streak, an Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile, was tested there. It was designed to deliver a nuclear warhead to Moscow in 20 minutes. The giant concrete stands used 90,920 liters of water a minute during rocket tests. Work started in 1956, testing in 1959. The plan was, after testing, to ship the rockets –built in Stevenage - to Woomera, Australia, for launch. Handover to the RAF was to be January 1963 but Blue Streak was canceled in 1960. The stands remain at Spadeadam, the RAF’s hush-hush Electronic Warfare Centre.  Matthew Hyde, in the Pevsner Buildings of England Cumbria, writes: ‘These mute remains have a stark beauty of their own. Although their forms should be dictated only by function, a sinister aesthetic has been at work’. The project, offering cheap housing, attracted skilled staff to the area. A nice survivor is Millfield, Brampton, a road of Festival-style staff housing.

Emergency HQs rely on secure telephone cable and microwave communications. In nuclear war 95% of phones are cut off. Telephone switching exchanges were hardened and reconstructed underground such as the ‘Guardian’  exchange in central Manchester. Walk along George Street to glimpse part of the surface structures. In 1955 work began constructing the ‘Backbone’ network of communication towers, linking London and the rest of the UK. Backbone avoids Manchester but it crosses to Quernmore, Lancs, from Hunters Stones, Yorkshire. One very visible local structure is Heaton Park microwave tower, part of the BT Microwave tower network originating from the BT Tower in London. This links with other towers. Some are concrete; others are functional steel pylons. One of the most conspicuous is London Road repeater station, Carlisle, built in 1964. The mast is 81 meters high. Matthew Hyde enthuses: ‘It is quite thrilling to look at, a steel skeleton in diminishing tiers, each with a perimeter platform, and now festooned with dishes; a touch of Blackpool, a touch of oil rig’.

Near Carlisle, at Anthorn, is the impressive MOD radio mast array erected in 1965. It’s a giant circle of stayed radio masts transmitting very low frequency (VLF) communication to nuclear submarines. Hyde calls it ‘oddly festive’.

Don’t forget Jodrell Bank radio telescope. It first recorded Sputnik’s squawking pips announcing the USSR’s mastery of space in 1956. What else did it observe?

Spadeadam.jpg

Not all Cold War designs were elementally severe. The V-bombers (Valiants, Victors and the delta-winged Vulcans), which were designed to deliver Mutually Assured Destruction and were continually alert for action, had a powerful elegance. There were no V-Force bases in the North West; the nearest was RAF Finningley. But Vulcans were tested at Avro’s works at Woodford near Wilmslow. I remember, as a boy, lying in the warm grass gazing at the lumbering black triangle of a Vulcan flying overhead – straight out of an L Ashwell Wood drawing from Eagle comic: thrillingly, terrifyingly sublime.

The Cold War ended and the UKWMO was disbanded. You can now visit English Heritage’s Cold War bunker at Acomb, York, a Group ROC HQ, much smaller than Langley Lane near Preston. East Germany, Poland, and the Baltic States are in the EU. But the UK still has Trident nuclear weapons and that means structures. What’s probably the biggest building in the North West? [Pub quizzers pay attention] The Devonshire Dock Hall, Barrow-in-Furness was erected in 1985 to construct Trident submarines. It’s an enormous shed with six vast cross-roofs. There are giant folding doors at each end. A ship lifts inside can move 24,000 tons. It is Big.

What happens today if Manchester is nuked? Do you know?

© Aidan Turner-Bishop

This article first appeared in The Modernist issue 4 'BRUTAL'