It was in 1968. I was 17. A friend and I had cycled from Bradford-on-Avon and stopped to rest near the village of Monkton Farleigh. I remember how still and quiet it was: no cars, no birds, no people. There was an old building close by, left over from the war, and we decided to investigate. ‘MOD, Strictly No Admittance’ said a sign, interpreted by us as, ‘Welcome, feel free to browse’. Inside the building were 2 conveyors leading to 2 steel trap-doors in the far wall. We got up on the conveyors and kicked at the bottom of the doors and suddenly we were sliding down steep chutes into utter darkness.
With our few matches we glimpsed a large stone arch and a control box on the wall nearby. Fumbling in the dark I groped at levers and switches. Suddenly, brilliant lights illuminated an enormously long corridor with arched bays, each 50 feet deep. Exploring the corridor we found smaller passageways which led into parallel corridors, one filled with over 100 railway trucks. We had discovered a massive underground labyrinth.
Suddenly we heard footsteps behind us. We started to walk faster and the footsteps speeded up. Panicking, we broke into a run and our pursuers started running too. Diving into one of the passageways we stopped and caught our breath. Silence, apart from our pounding hearts. Cautiously, we stepped out into the corridor, followed slowly and inexorably by our own echoes.
No, this is not an extract from ‘Boys Own’, but (an interpretation of) the gripping introduction to Nick McCamley’s talk to an enthralled December gathering of Thornbury History and Archaeological Society. Nick’s adventure in 1968 started a life-long love affair with secret underground places. The place he had ‘discovered’ turned out to be a 2nd World War ammunition depot of 80 underground acres at Monkton Farleigh, one of 3 similar ammunition stores in the Corsham area. A long railway tunnel led from the Bath-Chippenham branch line, and 11 miles of conveyor belts would have moved thousands of tons of ammunition. When the M.O.D abandoned the site they just walked out, leaving everything in working order. (You’ll be pleased to know they took the ammunition.)
As early as 1934 the government realised that war was coming and, worried that German bombers could reach existing arsenals in the South East, searched for underground sites in the North and West. The abandoned stone mines around Corsham, that still contained the old Victorian cranes, saws and pulleys, provided hundreds of acres of underground space. 25,000 miners from the North East who were out of work because of recession were relocated to the area to prepare the mines for new uses.
One underground quarry was used to store all the artefacts from the British Museum. Another housed millions of Czechoslovakian and Polish banknotes which the printers, De La Rue, were unable to deliver because of the war. The largest quarry near Box housed the huge engineering works of the Bristol Aeroplane Company, moved from Filton because it became vulnerable to bombing.
In the 1960s this huge space was converted, at great expense to the tax payer, to house the government, civil service and equivalent of GCHQ. Thousands of people would have worked and lived here, 100 feet underground, in the event of nuclear war. Codenamed Burlington, the site still contains large offices with office furniture, the government war room, dormitories, canteens, telephone exchange and bakery. The first class government canteen is still functional, with a cool coffee bar and top-of-the-range Italian coffee machine. There are 6 large lifts and a London Transport escalator commandeered from Holborn station, complete with airlocks, all still underground near Box.
All is now obsolete, and the once secret site was declassified in 2006. It is not currently accessible, but could be in the future. It would make a great location for a Bond movie. We are very grateful that Nick lived to tell us the tale of these extraordinary and almost incredible underground sites.
The Thornbury Local History and Archaeology Society always welcomes new and occasional members. Details of our programme can be found on this website, the library or the Town Hall. Our meetings are on the second Tuesday of the month, held at St Mary's Church Hall beginning at 7.30pm. Visitors are always welcome at the society for the small charge of £2.50.