As the Cold War took hold and the devastating power of nuclear weapons became apparent, nations in both the West and East began to build bunkers in anticipation of a Third World War.
Due to their purpose, many of these subterranean Cold War bunkers were top secret at the time and their existence continues to elude ordinary civilians today.
However, if you know where to look, these Cold War era shelters remain all around London…
Warning: Almost all of these buildings are private and, due to their age and deterioration are considered to be extremely hazardous. Do not attempt entry.
Transatlantic Hotline: The Kingsway Exchange, Holborn
Stretching beneath Holborn and Chancery Lane station, the Kingsway Exchange Cold War bunker dates back to WWII when it was used by the Special Operations Executive (SOE). The SOE was a branch of M16 which supported Resistance Fighters in Nazi occupied Europe.
After WWII this deep shelter was expanded to house a telephone exchange. As well as handling civilian calls, this exchange also provided the UK terminal for TAT 1. TAT 1 was a transatlantic telephone cable which played a key role in providing the emergency hotline between the White House and the Kremlin, set up after the Cuban Missile Crisis.
At its height around 200 people worked in the Kingsway Exchange and the complex contained a canteen and bar- said to be the deepest in London- to accommodate them.
Water was provided via an artesian well and, in the event of a nuclear war, the bunker contained enough supplies to operate for up to six weeks.
Above ground, the location of the Kingsway Exchange can be identified by a large air vent which can be seen at the southern end of Leather Lane
Cold War Bunkers: Governing London from Kelvedon Hatch, Essex
Had nuclear war ever erupted it was intended that control of London (or whatever was left of it) would be handed over to civil servants in a bunker deep within the Essex countryside, just outside the village of Kelvedon Hatch.
Craftily concealed beneath a mock bungalow, this large complex was designed to house 600 personnel and came complete with its own BBC studio.
The Commissioner in charge of the bunker would have been granted full, draconian powers- including the right to execute looters and other criminals.
Kelvedon Hatch is one of the few Cold War bunkers now open to the public as a museum, and makes for a very unsettling day out…
Cold War Bunkers: The Mysterious Q-Whitehall Tunnels of Westminster
Like the Kingsway Exchange, London has a subterranean network of tunnels, dubbed Q-Whitehall, which date back to WWII and were further expanded in the 1950s.
It is generally believed that Q-Whitehall’s tunnels were designed for carrying communications cables, although it is speculated that, when expanded, they were widened to provide underground access between government departments.
Documents relating to the extension are due to be declassified in 2026.
The original network runs from Trafalgar Square (where there is a connection with the Bakerloo line), past Craig’s Court (where there is a known service entrance) beneath Whitehall, and down to Horseferry Road.
A pair of discreet ventilators for the tunnel’s southern end can be seen within the grounds of the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, just across from Westminster Abbey.
It is believed Q-Whitehall is linked to other Cold-War era communications tunnels which sprawl beneath London.
Although details of this wider network remain sketchy, investigative journalist, Duncan Campbell managed to break into the system during December 1980 and, unhindered, explored the tunnels at leisure. Due to the distances involved, this required the aid of a bicycle.
An article detailing Duncan’s daring adventure- entitled Christmas with the Moles -was published in The New Statesman.
What lies beneath: Pear Tree House, Sydenham
Pear Tree House, which is near Crystal Palace on the corner of Hawke Road and Lunham Road, sits in the middle of the large Central Hill Estate and, at first glance, appears to be a regular 1960s apartment block.
Look at the flats from Hawke Road however, and you’ll see they are perched on top of a sturdy nuclear bunker.
The structure is built within a dip which is a remnant of a crater, created by a V2 rocket explosion in WWII.
During the Cold War, London was divided into a number of ‘Group Controls’, each of which was allocated a shelter.
In the event of war, these centres would have governed their respective areas, most likely under the guidance of the authorities at Kelvedon Hatch (see above).
These Group Controls were North East (run from Northumberland Avenue, Wanstead), North West (Beatrice Road, Southall), South West (Church Hill Road, Cheam) and South East- which would have come under the jurisdiction of the Pear Tree House centre.
Naturally the bunker was reserved for civil servants only; the residents in the homes above would’ve been left to fend for themselves. It’s not surprising therefore that, in the early 1980s, this cruel juxtaposition encouraged a number of CND protests to picket the site.
Cold War Bunkers: Down at the Old Bull & Bush, Hampstead Way
In 1903 tunnelling commenced on a new Northern Line station called ‘North End’ (also known as ‘Bull and Bush’ after a nearby pub which famously features in the Cockney music hall song, Down at the Old Bull and Bush).
The stop would have been between the stations at Golders Green and Hampstead but, due to various local concerns, it never saw completion.
The abandoned works left behind a cavernous space which happened to be the deepest point on the entire network.
Using this aspect to their advantage, authorities in the 1950s converted the unfinished station into the tube’s very own bunker; a protected control room from which the network’s floodgates could be operated in the event of an atomic attack.
Cold War Bunkers: Running Euston from Bricket Wood
Keeping with the theme of trains, there is another railway related stronghold just outside the capital. A cold war bunker lies tucked away behind Bricket Wood station; a quiet stop on the branch line between Watford Junction and St Alban’s Abbey.
Built in the early 1950s, this structure was intended as an emergency control centre which, in the event of a war, would have taken over the running of railway operations from Euston station. As such, it was planned that key staff from Euston would have been evacuated here.
The building is now in a very poor state and came close to demolition in 2018. Fortunately the heritage body Historic England recognised the bunker’s architectural importance and it is now Grade II listed.
Cold War Bunkers: Dulwich & Sydenham Golf Club
During the Cold War, over 1,500 little bunkers known as ‘Monitoring Posts’ were built throughout the UK.
These were staffed by volunteers from the Royal Observer Corps (ROC) who, between 1955 and 1991, carried out weekly exercises practicing for WWIII.
Had the real thing broken out it would have been the job of the ROC to record and monitor the size and location of the nuclear explosions and the path of radioactive fallout spread by the burgeoning mushroom clouds.
Each of the tiny bunkers would have been operated by a crew of three people who were expected to remain at their post for up to two weeks.
16 Monitoring Posts were built around London, including sites at Acton, Collindale, Hounslow and Mortlake. Many of them have since been demolished.
Perhaps the most prominent to survive however is the post based in Dulwich; directly on land belonging to the Dulwich and Sydenham Hill Golf Club.
The entry hatch which identifies this old ROC post is located just behind the club house.
In 1983, the Dulwich post was featured on the London Programme.
Read the rest of my Cold War London series:
Part one: London’s Cold War Spy Locations
Part two: The Umbrella Assassination
Part four: Bloomsbury: Where the Bomb was Born
And make sure you check out my top picks from the National Archives’ excellent exhibition: ‘Protect & Survive: Britain’s Cold War Revealed.’
6 thoughts on “London’s Cold War Bunkers”
Well, some personal connection for me here. When I was in The London Ambulance Service, we did a tour of the Kingsway complex, as part of the training for a ‘dirty bomb’ attack on London. Years later, I worked for SO16 in the Met, and we managed the Craigs Court alarms, so were given a tour. Very claustrophobic, as I recall.
Best wishes, Pete.
Hi Pete, that’s a fascinating story!
Hi Rob great post very interesting, my partner and myself went down a big Bunker in Norfolk near where we live it’s in Neatishead ex Radar station very interesting lots to see if you ever get the chance well worth a visit
Many thanks Bill. I was in Norfolk recently- didn’t know about that site, shame I missed it!
You were in Norfolk, and didn’t let me know? Naughty!