What a World

Britain’s Nuke-Proof Underground City

As the world held its breath during the Cold War, England built a top-secret underground city to save its government in case of nuclear attack. For half a century, "Burlington" lay ready.

Jamie Wiseman/Associated/REX USA

In case of nuclear disaster: stay calm and carry on…living underground.

In 1956, the British government began building a sprawling subterranean city two hours from London underneath the ancient, 13,000-person town of Corsham. If the nation was struck with a nuclear bomb, 4,000 government employees would be shuttled via a secret train line from downtown London to a blast-and-radiation-proof bunker code-named “Burlington”. From these emergency government war headquarters, as they were designated, Britain could resume governing while the world above burned.

The secret word for this evacuation was “orangeade,” a 1962 copy of the Cabinet Office’s War Book revealed in 2011. The code would also be told to security agents guarding the site. "Advance parties going to Burlington would be kept to a minimum and every effort would be made to maintain the cover story,” the document explained. From Burlington, the assorted agencies could plan their next moves. “The chiefs of staff will be ready to make recommendations on the use of the nuclear retaliatory forces based in the UK."

After its completion in 1961, the accommodations constructed 100-feet underground would not have made for an entirely claustrophobic existence. The 35-acre bunker had two canteens, four residential areas, a bakery, hospital, library, and a VIP suite, according to a map of the facility. There even was rumored to be a pub called Rose and Crown that was modeled after Whitehall Street’s famed and favored Red Lion bar.

With these amenities, inhabitants could live for three months without having to emerge into the chaos above ground, the Ministry of Defense predicted. Burlington was replete with 60 miles of roads—labeled with American street names like Main Street and First Avenue—that were navigable by battery-powered buggies. It had an underground water treatment plant, a power station, Britain’s second-largest telephone exchange (with updated directories maintained until the late ’80s), and a system of pneumatic tubes that hurled messages throughout the complex. The climate was set to a comfortable 68 degrees.

A BBC studio was constructed to be manned by 11 employees who, at the hour of attack, would stop normal programming and switch to “Wartime Broadcasting Service”. The station’s staff would assist then-Prime Minister Harold MacMillan in addressing the country. MacMillan and his family would be brought in by helicopter to the complex, where they had the only en-suite bathroom in their whitewashed room.

The only potential hiccup in this grand plan was that very few people knew of the bunker’s existence. Not the BBC employees pre-selected for the station, nor the majority of the government staffers who’d be living there.

The site of Burlington, or Site 3, as it later came to be known, was a former stone quarry that the government began converting into an underground factory in the 1940s. At the end of World War II, the factory closed, and the space was used for storage. As the government began concocting this worst-case scenario plan, it kept an eye out for a secure location and soon decided to use the former factory as an alternate seat of power in case of war. The area was already filling with military personnel: census records show that between 1931 and 1951, the population nearly tripled due to a large army base.

As the Cold War died down and nuclear destruction never came to fruition, the underground complex slowly slipped into disrepair. After a quarter-century of disuse, part of the bunker was converted into a “nuclear reporting cell,” again a response hub in case of an attack, which held a staff of 50 to 100, but was never actually put to use. In 1991, following the fall of the Soviet Union, when the entire site was decommissioned after the government voted against a £40 million site upgrade.

Long speculated to be a UFO research center, Burlington has been the subject of rampant conspiracies for decades. Subterranean explorers puzzled over the mysterious red door that cut off access to underground tunnels leading to the bunker. But the true nature of its existence wasn’t revealed until 2004, when it was declassified by the government. The fully stocked bunker was still intact—with stores of linens, “Top Secret” stationary, pots and pans, outdated technology, and toilet paper—and a staff of four maintenance men.

In 2005, it was put up for sale and received a number of eager bidders, but was taken off the market for reasons unknown. Today, the mysterious world underneath the sleepy town of Corsham still hasn’t been opened to the public and continues to breed mystery.

Online, commenters seeking a way in or claiming to have visited the site propagate stories about the Cold War bunker. A lucky few have gotten to explore it for themselves. “Plates & cutlery all laid out make this area look like it’s ready to be used at the drop of a hat, or as if previous inhabitants just upped and left,” a group of urban explorers writes of a 2010 visit. Another, a member of the Royal Air Force, remembers visiting in 2006 and recalls “the supply store was like going back in a time capsule.” The whole place, he says, was “like a James Bond film set.”

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Unlike Bond, constantly thwarting Soviet villains, Burlington never got a chance to flex its muscle. But for nearly half a century, it was ready to serve Britain at a moment's notice, waiting at attention like a dutiful agent of the crown.