For more than 50 years Hack Green was a closely guarded secret, hidden away in the Cheshire countryside.
The bunker would have become the seat of government in the event of a nuclear attack on the UK.
Deep in the Cheshire countryside near to Nantwich, the UK government commissioned a secret project to ensure that, in the event of nuclear annihilation, the state would survive.
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As soon as the warning of a nuclear attack was sounded, the central government would dissolve, ceding power to 20 Regional Commissioners housed at Regional Government Headquarters (RGHQ) across the country.
Hack Green was to be the RGHQ for a vast area encompassing the whole north west, from the south of Cheshire to Cumbria’s Scottish border.
RAF Hack Green, formerly a ROTOR radar station during the Second World War, was converted into a nuclear bunker at a cost of £32 million (more than £160 million today) between 1979 and 1983.
Operational for just 10 years, the bunker could support a staff of 161 for three months without externally delivered supplies, and was equipped to take control of the whole country if the situation required.
In 1997, Hack Green was opened to the public by Rodney Siebert and his family as a museum. Many of the rooms have been restored to reflect their former purpose, as the museum’s director, Lucy Siebert, explains.
“Everything in the bunker is a real artefact,” Lucy said.
“When we first came to the bunker there was nothing but the stainless steel goods in the kitchen. Everything in the collection has been collected by our founder… or donated to the museum. We have recreated the bunker as close as we can based on photographic records and previous bunker staff.
“A large amount of the collection was ‘liberated’ from other bunkers around the country that were being closed and scrapped. Most of the artefacts are irreplaceable and unique.”
The bunker consists of two floors, partially sunk 40ft into the ground and encased in concrete walls two metres thick. The upper floor consisted of three dormitories, a canteen, common room, decontamination room and sick bay; but it is the bowels of the bunker that housed the most important mechanisms of a post-nuclear war Britain.
Along with the government departments, which included extensive communications systems, attack warning equipment, and a briefing room; the bunker housed a BBC radio studio, a room that housed scientific advisors and a BT telephone exchange. The largest room by far is the plant room, which housed the life-support systems that would sustain 161 people for up to three months.
All of these rooms can be viewed today largely as they were at the height of the cold war, and many are brought to life by audio recordings of imagined scenarios that play automatically on entry.
“This is a rare opportunity to see a time capsule of a time when the world nearly ended for us all,” says Museum Director, Lucy Siebert, “We’re obviously very passionate about it, and I think it’s really important that people understand how real it was and how scary it was.”
Elsewhere in the bunker, a wealth of artifacts from both sides of the iron curtain illustrate the effects of a nuclear exchange in startling detail. The artifacts include original fallout survival suits, dosimeters and four real decommissioned thermonuclear weapons.
These weapons are the 400-kiloton WE 177, Polaris and Chevaline, the forerunner of the current Trident missile. Visitors can stand just inches from these weapons, each capable of killing millions in a blinding flash. The weapons were brought to the bunker by the museum’s founder, and father of the current director, Rodney Siebert.
Rodney said: “It is of national importance that Britain’s cold war heritage is preserved for future generations, so that they can see how close we came to oblivion.
“The Cold War is over, and the nuclear holocaust we all feared never happened yet. We have real weapons of mass destruction here at the bunker and not many people have ever been close to a real nuclear bomb.
“Although they are quite busy at present I have been in discussions with the Pentagon in the USA to try and acquire a real nuclear cruise missile to augment what I am told is the largest collection of nuclear weapons outside of the government’s own private collection.”
The museum also displays the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System that once operated at RAF High Wycombe. The system could detect intercontinental ballistic missiles four minutes before impact.
Once warning was received, the Prime Minister’s command to launch a retaliatory attack would be transmitted to Polaris submarines via the VLF (Very Low Frequency) radio transmitter control at Rugby, now also on display at Hack Green. This particular radio was the very one used by Margaret Thatcher to order the sinking of the General Belgrano during the Falklands War.
Rodney Siebert, a former member of the Royal Observer Corps, took over the museum after the bunker was decommissioned in 1993.
The incredible amount of work involved in opening the museum and collecting the vast array of artifacts has all been worth it, according to Rodney.
He added: “I’m thrilled that so many have enjoyed what I set out to do – someone had to do it, or most of that stuff would have been scrapped.”
The museum is now run by his daughter, Lucy.
“I’ve been running it for about nine years now,” Lucy said. “Dad is still involved, but he gets to do all the events and fun stuff now without having to worry about balancing the books. He’s a fountain of knowledge.
“He was in the royal observer corps and then was involved higher up in civil defence. He actually visited the bunker while it was operational.”
Lucy does not remember the Cold War, but has learned a great deal from both her father and from visitors to the bunker.
“I was born on the day the Berlin Wall came down,” she said. “I’ve spent a lot of time talking to a lot of people about what it means to them, and we’ve done loads of work preserving domestic memories of the cold war.
“The interesting thing I find is that people ask me who comes to the bunker, and it’s everyone. Children, families, photographers, ghost hunters, tourists – out of all those people there’s so many different responses. Some kids really do have a fun time and a great day out, and we get people who worked in bunkers who share really warm nostalgic memories.”
For Lucy, our shared experience of the Coronavirus pandemic resonates with the Cold War experience provided at the bunker.
“When you mention civil defence people turn off,” she said. “The country is now in the tail end of a national emergency and that gives context to how the nuclear threat was dealt with. The bunker was built for not just nuclear emergencies but for any kind of national emergency.”
This was something she felt acutely during one of the bunker’s regular movie nights, held in the cinema room deep underground.
She added: “We had a film screening of Threads . There’s a scene where they’re in the bunker in Sheffield and you look up and it looks exactly the same as the room we’re in.
“There’s also a bit where the newsreader says ‘stay at home’, which is a standard measure for all these sorts of things, and we all did a little shuffle. It was a bit too familiar.”
Hack Green Secret Nuclear Bunker is located two and a half miles south of Nantwich railway station, and is open seven days a week from 10am to 4pm, and now hosts events, including weddings.