Touring Churchill's secret bunker

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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.

Construction on the Citadel began in 1939 to provide Britain with an alternative command center should things get too hot in the middle of London. Building work took place at night under camouflage netting. The soil was disposed of, as legend would have it, in bread vans.

The Citadel’s official code name was Paddock — a possible reference to a nearby Paddock Road. (Another secret bunker for the Admiralty built at Oxgate in northwest London was codenamed Oxgate. “Not much of a code if you think about it,” deadpanned Catford.)

Work finished in 1940 and Paddock went into operation, although the 40-room complex — replete with map room, communications center and a BBC radio room for emergency broadcasts (but no toilets, bedrooms or canteen) — was maintained only by a skeleton staff.

In October that year, Churchill paid his second-ever visit to the site to chair a meeting of his war cabinet. Catford pointed to where the man himself would have sat and I pictured him, frowning and ebullient, fouling the close air with his cigar fumes.

It is strange to think this stark underground room, buried beneath houses not more than 10 minutes’ drive from my own suburban London home, is where decisions that shaped the course of history could have been made. If things had taken a different direction, this room could potentially have been the last stand for a free Europe; an inverse image of the Berlin bunker where Hitler died.

Of course, it didn’t turn out like that. Churchill, apparently, had no great love for the place. He complained about the damp, later describing it as “far from the light of day,” and never visited again. When the cabinet next met there in 1941, he allowed his deputy, Clement Atlee, to take the chair.

That meeting was to be the last time Paddock was used for its original purpose. Whitehall never sustained major damage so there was no need to relocate, and following the advent of atomic weaponry, the bunker’s inadequate defenses made it obsolete.

According to Catford, detritus littering the complex points to the Citadel’s post-war usage as a storage room and a (rather gloomy, one suspects) social club for post office staff working in nearby offices above ground. At some point three or four decades ago, it was bricked up and abandoned.

After our tour was over and the last visitors climbed the stairs back from the bowels of history into the daylight of modern suburbia, the metal door clanged shut and Paddock was abandoned once again — its storied chambers safely hidden by that great keeper of secrets: London.

Barry Neild writes London Underground, a GlobalPost column on the lesser known spots in one of the world's most fascinating cities. Read his last installment, on touring Buckingham Palace.