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Touring Churchill's secret bunker

A World War II secret lurks in nondescript London suburb.

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LONDON, U.K. — You couldn't find a more unremarkable street than Brook Road in the north London district of Dollis Hill, and I must have driven down it a dozen times, oblivious to its dull houses, tidy hedgerows, boring family cars — and top secret Churchill bunker.

OK, you could forgive me for failing to appreciate its suburban delights, but a World War II command center built to house Winston Churchill’s cabinet in the event of a Nazi direct hit on his government headquarters at Whitehall? How could I miss that?

The answer to this is, of course, one of the great things about living in London. It’s a city of long history and deep secrets — many of which lurk in the most ordinary and unexpected corners, perhaps known only to a handful of people.

London’s wartime past is well-documented, as highlighted last month by events to mark the 70th anniversary of the blitz air raids that left great chunks of the city in rubble. So secret was Churchill’s bunker, however, that it was never mentioned in official records.

But take a closer look at Brook Road and you’ll see it: an unmarked metal door in the side of a windowless single-story of brickwork; beyond the door, a narrow stairway leading down to a sprawling underground complex that few have entered. Churchill called it "the Citadel."

Designed to withstand the enemy’s deadliest ordnance, it’s still no easy task to breach the walls of the Citadel, with access restricted to two days of the year. It’s not that there’s still anything particularly sensitive down there, just a rather precarious state of dilapidation.

On one of these rare open days, I was given a tour of the two-level bunker by Nick Catford, of Subterranea Brittanica, a group of amateur historians tasked with helping preserve this site and other underground locations. Equipped with hard hats, we descended into the moist gloom.

“Eating, drinking and sex are not permitted,” said Catford, explaining the regulations covering our visit. His humor is probably the driest thing in the Citadel, where leaks in the once-hermetically sealed structure mean pumps have to constantly battle rising water levels.

With calcite stalactites dripping from above and snowdrifts of fungus below, eating, drinking and sex are uninviting prospects down here. It is nice to imagine that, back in the day, there were emergency bottles of scotch tucked into metal filing cabinets and, if not sex, there were at least a few furtive glances across the dank telex room.

A lot is left to the imagination when touring the Citadel. Aside from some impressive air conditioning machinery, the ribcage of a long-defunct telephone exchange and a hulking generator (that can still be brought coughing to life), the rooms have been stripped bare.

Thankfully, Catford’s commentary fills the void, vividly describing what each room was used for and offering enlightenment on the bunker’s origins and its rather ignominious fate.