20 years after the Berlin Wall: The Culture24 guide to the best Cold War sites in the UK

By Culture24 Staff | 05 November 2009
A photo of a war plane in a museum hangar

(Above) A section of the Berlin Wall, now residing at the Royal Engineers Museum. Photo © Richard Moss

To mark the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Culture24 took a look at some of the best sites in the UK to find out the secretive plans and campaigns behind the 40-year conflict…

Air Strikes
The Royal Air Force’s nuclear capabilities provided a key deterrent to the perceived Soviet threat as tensions bubbled after 1945. There are few better places to appreciate its role than the National Museum of Flight at East Fortune in East Lothian.

a photo of two children using an interactive in a museum

The National Museum of Flight in Scotland

The vibrant centre opened two major permanent exhibitions earlier this year as part of a £2 million investment drive at the site, showcasing an impressive collection of aircraft including an unlikely appearance by the Spitfire, which evolved through the second World War to become an integral asset during the very early years of the Cold War.

East Fortune itself was one of only a few military airfields to avoid being converted into an industrial park after World War Two, serving as a food stockpile for emergencies in the event of a potential nuclear war.

A photo of doors built into a cliff

Picture: Nick Catford, subbrit.org

The Highland Aviation Museum, near Inverness Airport, is a relatively new display, having opened in 2005.

It features "super-fast" planes from the Cold War era, of the type that carried out missions to intercept Russian bombers across the North Sea at night.

Visitors can climb inside the XD875 Vickers Valiant to peruse enough screens, buttons and dials to give even the most adept aviator a manoeuvring migraine. The "Crash Landing Exit" portal is said to be a particular highlight.

A photo of a missile ready to fire on a military base

A Bloodhound surface-to-air defence missile at the National Cold War Exhibition. © RAF Museum

More fine examples of aircraft created for use during the Cold War can be found at the Tangmere Military Aviation Museum in Sussex, which holds one of the best cross-sections in the country.

Juggernauts on display include the McDonnell Douglas Phantom XV408, one of the first Phantoms delivered to the RAF for fighter and ground attack duties which served several UK and German squadrons until she retired in 1992.

Also displayed is the Sea Harrier FRS2, which signified a futuristic new type of radar system - not to mention its established jump jet vertical take-off technology - when it arrived in the 1980s, serving until 1998.

The Lockheed T33 19252 was allocated to the French Air Force during the 1950s and early 1960s as part of a military aid development plan, but transferred back to the UK for use on American bases when the French left NATO in 1966.

It played a crucial part in training pilots during the earliest part of the Cold War, seeing action in more than 20 countries.

A photo of a bomb artefact in a museum

A bomb at The Imperial War Museum London. © IWM

Gallery spies and hot war
When it comes to modern conflict, Lambeth's Imperial War Museum is an essential port of call.

Apart from extensive galleries covering the First and Second World Wars, a Secret War exhibition reveals the clandestine nature of British intelligence operations, showing how MI5 and MI6 agents used invisible ink, cipher machines, sabotage devices and secret radios.

The post war galleries at the Museum include displays that explore Britain's membership of NATO, together with explorations of the Cold War when it turned 'hot' with conflicts in Korea, Vietnam and Suez.

Among the many military museums with post war collections, the Royal Engineers Museum at Chatham is worth a vist for its post war galleries, which cover conflicts in Borneo and Korea - you can also catch a glimpse of the real Berlin War, part of which was recovered by enterprising British sappers. It now resides in the museum car park.

A photo of a museum interior under red light

Manchester's IWM North

The Imperial War Museum North, in Manchester, is equally interesting and takes an alternative approach to exploring 20th century conflict. The post war world is explored in detail with different 'silos' or exhibition areas looking at conflicts from the 20th to the 21st centuries.

The National Cold War Exhibition at RAF Cosford, in Shropshire, takes the devastating human and symbolic effect of the atomic bomb deployed against Japan at the end of World War Two as a starting point.

It then proceeds to chronicle the 40 years of apocalyptic shadow which followed through timelines, aircraft, missiles, international galleries, ships, squadrons and machines.

A photo of a bunker interior with a strong fortified door slightly ajar

RAF Holmpton, near Hull

From campaigns in the Dominican Republic to frosty portraits of Mikhail Gorbachev, you can chronologically chart various events from the conflict by picking a specific year.

Seasonal openings…
If you time it right, you can catch a couple of Cold War gems. The , in Suffolk, is perhaps the most unusual of them all, only being accessible during the summer season by ferry crossing between 10am and 2pm, with a final boat sailing back at 5pm.

It was the centre for a multi-million pound series of Anglo-American missions aiming to detect and track missiles and aircraft, and became a centre for research and testing.

A photo of a shingle beach

The atmospheric and unusual Orford Ness Nature Reserve in Suffolk. © NTPL

The eeriness of the remaining buildings have inspired artwork, occupying a shingle sprint on a remote tip of Eastern England. Military pagodas and a haunting atmosphere – it’s frequently been linked with UFOs – attest to the bleak military bunkers which once stood there, replaced now by wild nature and scientifically important flora and fauna.

The Secret Bunker, in Fife, is again only open through spring sumeer and early autumn and closes for the season on November 2. It lives up to its name, holding a labyrinth of tunnels and sufficient accommodation for hundreds of personnel under an apparently innocuous farmhouse.

The Bunker symbolised the total deterioration of the relationship between the Warsaw Pact countries and the Allies, as the government established a chain of early warning radar stations along the East coast of the UK.

Home bases
Further down the East Coast, RAF Honington survived numerous German bombings in the 1940s to become a base for several squadrons involved in bombing operations during the Suez crisis.

The Suffolk centre remains an important RAF complex today, and is near enough to tie in to a visit to Bentwaters Cold War Museum.

Based at a former Twin Base complex which played an important role during 1980s campaigns and the Gulf conflict of the 1990s, the growing museum opens between April and the middle of October.

The Museum Open Day, scheduled for June 13 2010, should be well worth a look, drawing vehicles, aircraft, displays and experts from across the country.

A photo of a wide brick house in woodland

Kelvedon Hatch in Essex. © Richard Lamont 1996, subbrit.org

Kelvedon Hatch, at Brentwood in Essex, was designed to boost population survival attempts in the aftermath of nuclear war, filled with beds to accommodate hundreds of citizens and personnel in the event of an attack.

It served as a civil defence centre before being decommissioned in 1992, and offers handset-led tours with opportunities to try on military uniforms and gas masks.

RAF Holmpton, near Hull, was still in use as an experimental electronic warfare command centre until as recently as 2001.

Constructed in 1952, it served as a radar station for more than 20 years before being used as a training base and rebuilt as an emergency wartime headquarters.

Bunkers, guardrooms, peep holes and nuclear warheads are among the delights on a tour through the historic grounds. See www.rafholmpton.com for more details.

Bunkers
In 1976 the Ministry of Defence bought an abandoned site at Hack Green, in Cheshire, for secret conversion at a cost believed to be in the region of £32 million as part of a Home Defence plan.

It featured a generating plant, air conditioning and life support facilities, filter rooms, emergency supplies and nuclear fallout survival mechanisms for more than 100 civil servants and military personnel.

Twenty-five years after it swung into action, the bunker is open for spooky tours on weekends these days (closed in December).

A photo of an underground tunnel

A tunnel under Dover Castle. © Nick Catford, subbrit.org

There are more tunnels to be found at Dover Castle. The rich history of the popular landmark is always worth revisiting, but its tunnels were expanded after 1940 to provide a would-be home for central government if the anticipated devastation struck.

The threat dissipated following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and the underground routes have been open to the public since its defence responsibilities were officially abandoned a few years later.

Another chilling weekend trip is on offer in York, where English Heritage's Cold War Bunker made the picturesque city a target for enemy surveillance during the hostilities.

A semi-submerged fortress full of equipment and decontamination units for the chosen few who would be saved from the nuclear holocaust inside it, the bunker was built in 1961, a year before the critical Cuban Missile Crisis.

A photo of the outside of a green brick bunker

The York Secret Cold War Bunker provided a safe point for a chosen few in the case of nuclear war

Remnants of Cold War bunkers can also be pored over at the magnificent Stourhead estate in Wiltshire, illustrating the significance of the site during more than 6,000 years of occupation.

Gravesend’s Cold War Bunker, built in Woodlands park 55 years ago, has 13 rooms. It’s been redesigned to look like it did in the 1950s, complete with fallout and communications rooms, a monitoring post and a government film dishing out tips on what to do when Armageddon struck.

It’s home to a 900-pound nuclear bomb, the WE 177, and escorted tours are bookable. Call 01474 337600 for more details.

Cold War websites
The Imperial War Museum marked the 20th anniversary of the collapse of the Berlin Wall with an online exhibition exploring the British experiences of the Cold War.

What Lies Beneath is an attempt to give new perspectives to a conflict that was played out through arms races, proxy wars, the "space race" and technological and cultural rivalry.

Watch out for some entertaining and unusual film clips - not least Royal Marines taking LSD while on exercise at Porton Down in 1964 and a series of Royal Navy films showing the dangers of becomimg a spy for the KGB.

When it wasn't ensnaring Royal Navy officers the Soviet Union pulled off an incredible feat during the Cold War by mapping most of the world in millions of surveys, providing an overhead view of enemy lands.

The Cartographic Unit at the University of Southampton holds many of them after a local map dealer acquired a production depot used by the Russians in Latvia.

A photo of a detailed map of london

The Soviet map of London can be seen at the University of Southampton's Cartogrophy department. southampton.ac.uk

The sheer detail of the maps has been described as "staggering" by academics from the department, and high-quality versions of them, showing numerous cities from Britain and around the world, are available to view and buy copies of.

Visit the department online for more details.

From Richmond to Rotherham, Subterranean Brittanica have left no bunker unturned in their constant quest to find and explore Cold War sites around the UK. Check out the enormous full list and some of their adventures here.

It’s been a while since UK Cold War has been updated, but it remains a fascinating, in-depth resource, full of lists and insights into the thinking behind the British defence campaign.

David Farrant's WW2 And Cold War History in Britain isn't the prettiest website you'll ever see, but it's a witty and enthusiastic round-up of artefacts, relics and centres of interests across the country which is well worth the effort.

The National Archives Learning Curves Cold War section has plenty of interesting case studies and interactive elements. It's of most interest to teachers and young learners, but should prove informative for anyone with an interest in the tensions.

Follow our fictional narrative exploring spooks and spying in Cold War London in the Culture24 trail Cold War Spy Networks: Intrigue On The Streets Of London and discover locations, collections and exhibitions along the way.