Beneath the City Streets

BT Tower, Fitzrovia, London

I’ve always been interested in the rumours, urban legends and hard evidence for secret government installations underground, both in urban settings and in remote country areas, quietly inserted before, during and particularly after the Second World War, ever since I first read Peter Laurie’s book, Beneath the City Streets (Allen Lane 1970), shortly after it was published.

Peter Laurie (b 1937), a freelance journalist, had written an article for the Sunday Times in 1967 about how wartime civil defence had been transformed, with hardly any public attention, ostensibly in response to the peculiar threats of nuclear warfare.

He became sufficiently intrigued to develop his research as a hobby, which he published as a book which ran to two editions.

He concluded that “civil defence in its higher manifestations deals with the brute realities of government…it encases the central essence of political power”.

All this he accomplished on paper, using information that was in the public domain, stringing together data sometimes from unlikely sources, such as the GPO trunk dialling codes and the London Underground map, and throwing up facts that fascinated me at the time.

He pointed out quirks in the alignments of the horn aerials of the GPO microwave system that, while providing the nation with colour television signals, bent back and forth to serve as an impenetrable communication system between sites that would protect government and military operations in the event of warfare or civil unrest. 

He showed that the locations of the GPO towers at Bagshot and Stokenchurch were aligned with RAF Medmenham, a secret installation at Warren Row (identified by the Spies for Peace [Spies for Peace – Wikipedia] in 1963) and the RAF Staff College Bracknell.  Each site had sufficient altitude to tap into the microwave signal overhead making them independent of more vulnerable underground cables.

He drew attention to the existence of Second World War facilities in the underground quarries adjacent to Box Tunnel on the Great Western main line, providing easy transportation for an emergency evacuation from central London and from Windsor to National Seat of Government under the village of Box [Closely-guarded secret | Mike Higginbottom Interesting Times].

Much of this infrastructure subsequently became outmoded, and some of it is now common knowledge.  Churchill’s Cabinet War Rooms, for instance, is a celebrated attraction:  Visit Churchill War Rooms – Plan Your Visit | Imperial War Museums (iwm.org.uk).

Nuclear bunkers are open to the public in York [York Cold War Bunker | English Heritage (english-heritage.org.uk)], Cheshire [Hack Green Secret Nuclear Bunker], Holderness [Home – Home (visitthebunker.com)] and Essex [The Secret Nuclear Bunker – Kelvedon Hatch – Kelvedon Hatch – Secret Nuclear Bunker].  Another is under restoration in Edinburgh [Barnton Quarry Rotor SOC and Regional Seat of Government – Subterranea Britannica (subbrit.org.uk)].

Others, rarely mentioned in the public domain, may still be operational:  Hidden depths at Manchester’s Arndale Centre | Mike Higginbottom Interesting Times.

Peter Laurie’s book has long been out of print, though copies are still available [Beneath the City Streets: 9780140033816: Amazon.com: Books], and the content is inevitably dated, but it remains worth reading for insights into the effort expended to preserve government control, and the ubiquity of secret activity hiding in plain sight.

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