Listed places

9 Places That Reveal the Hidden History of the Cold War

Discover establishments that were once secret to the public.

The buildings of the Cold War are some of our last physical links to this episode of our history.

They bear witness to phenomena such as the development and deployment of nuclear weapons, the ‘special relationship’ between the UK and the US, constant global surveillance, and huge expenditure on science and technology research as well as defence.

Until recently, these often secret establishments were unknown to historians. Now, thanks to recent research and the decision to list these intriguing sites, future generations can fully understand and appreciate the country’s experience of the Cold War.

1. Building X6, Foulness, Essex

This purpose-built research establishment was central to Britain’s defence strategy when, in the summer of 1952, an experimental atomic device was assembled here.

A photograph of a single story building.
The scheduled Building X6, Atomic Weapons Research Establishment, Foulness, Essex.

It was later transported to the Montebello Islands, Australia, where it was detonated in October. Some argued that this secured Britain’s position and provided a deterrent against Soviet aggression.

2. Orford Ness, Suffolk

From 1955, this remote coastal spit was developed for the testing of nuclear weapons to make sure that they were safe to store, handle, and ultimately could survive the flight to their final destinations.

A photograph of ruins in a former nuclear test site.
This scheduled monument on Orford Beach, East Suffolk, was first established as an airfield for the RAF in 1915.

This work carried high political stakes because Britain couldn’t be regarded as a nuclear power until it demonstrated it was able to drop an atomic bomb from an aircraft.

3. Westcott, Buckinghamshire

Westcott has been synonymous with rocket research and development since the mid-1940s.

A photograph of a military building made from reinforced concrete.
The Grade II* listed Rocket Propulsion Establishment, Westcott, Buckinghamshire.

After the Second World War, highly advanced German rocket research was incorporated into British programmes, with German scientists relocated to this establishment to research liquid propellants alongside their British counterparts.

4. RAF North Luffenham, Rutland

In the late 1950s, the United States supplied 60 nuclear-tipped Thor missiles manned by Royal Air Force crews and an American launch control officer.

A photograph of a former missile site with concrete structures.
The Grade II* listed RAF North Luffenham, Rutland.

During the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, all but one of the 60 missiles were raised to alert.

5. Spadeadam Rocket Establishment, Cumbria

This world-class rocket research site was developed to test the British-built Blue Streak missile, designed to deliver a nuclear warhead to Moscow.

A photograph of a former missile test site.
The scheduled Spadeadam Rocket Establishment, Cumbria.

The project was cancelled in 1960, and the missile was adapted as the launch vehicle for the European Launcher Development Organisation. This, too, was cancelled in 1971.

6. RAF Neatishead, Norfolk

This early 1960s radar is Europe’s last surviving high-power Cold War-era radar. It was installed to provide early warning of an attack by Soviet bombers.

A photograph of a 1960s radar.
The scheduled RAF Neatishead Air Defence Radar Station, Norfolk.

7. Regional Seat of Government building, Cambridge

England was divided into nine regions, which, in the event of nuclear war, would have been governed by Regional Commissioners housed and civil servants in heavily protected buildings.

A photograph of a reinforced concrete war room.
The Grade II listed Regional Seat of Government building, Cambridge.

This complex in Cambridge is one of only two purpose-built Regional Seats of Government built during the early 1960s, making it a rare example of a structure designed to operate after a nuclear attack.

It has thick external walls to resist blast, heat and radiation penetration and is equipped with an air filtration plant, standby generators, canteens, dormitories, operations rooms and communications facilities.

8. RAF Upper Heyford, Oxfordshire

This 1920s airfield was redeveloped in the early 1950s for the United States Strategic Air Command and, in the 1970s, was hardened against a pre-emptive attack.

A photograph of building and structures in a former airfield.
RAF Upper Heyford, Oxfordshire. Conservation Area

At this time, if war had broken out, its nuclear-armed F111 jets would have been some of the first to engage Soviet forces.

9. RAF Alconbury, Cambridgeshire

This massive two-storey structure was one of the last Cold War bunkers to be built in England. Its wartime role was to process data collected by TR1 reconnaissance aircraft collected over the European battlefields.

A photograph of a partly sunken reinforced concrete bunker.
The Grade II* listed Avionics Building at RAF Alconbury, Cambridgeshire.

Further reading

9 comments on “9 Places That Reveal the Hidden History of the Cold War

  1. Do you not consider RAF Waddington as significant , seeing as it was a primary nuclear bomber base. The deep bunkers housing the warheads and command and control can still be seen as you drive past on the A15 –

  2. Thank you Richard for your comment. RAF Waddington can be found on our Pastscape and under “More Information & Sources” there is information as to why RAF Waddington has not been listed:

    For your convenience (although it’s definitely worth visiting the webpage for more information), please find below the assessment given when the site was considered for listing:

    The Military Buildings Selection Guide (English Heritage, March 2007) states that while aerodromes have strong local resonances, designation is only appropriate for a selection of sites. Selection principles include rarity, relative intactness, technical or structural interest, group value and operational importance.

    There are fifteen listed military control towers in England, all of which are Grade II and all of which have been listed since October 2002. There is one example represented in the List of type 2072/26 (1926, Catterick), one of type 1959/34 (1934, Bassingbourn), two of 5845/39 (1939, West Malling and Swanton Morley), one of 7345/41 (1941, Alconbury), one of 12096/41, four of 12779/41, two of 13726/41, two of 343/43 and one of 5223a/51.

    The 5845/39 type watchtower, built to a standardised design by the Air Ministry’s Directorate of Work, specifically for the ‘expansion period’ was one of the most common types to be found on British military airfields. They have no particular claims to special technical or structural interest, although the type has its place in the evolution of the military watch tower. While they are not known to survive in huge numbers, there are towers of this type still in existence, including the two listed examples, and therefore are not considered to have rarity value.

    The architectural interest of the former watchtower at RAF Waddington has been very severely compromised by the degree of alteration which has taken place since the 1960s, notably the large c.1980 addition and the loss of the double steel blast windows at ground and first floor. The replacement uPVC windows, the creation of new external doors, an inserted internal corridor, and replacement of all the original fittings and fixtures, with the exception of the staircase, also compromise its interest. The two Grade II listed watch offices of this type at West Malling and Swanton Morley are demonstrably superior in this respect, and a comparison highlights the fact that the Waddington watch office is too altered to merit designation on grounds of special architectural interest alone.

    While it is true that RAF Waddington can lay claims to historical significance, for example its association with Bomber Command, the fact that it not only lost more bombers than any other RAF station, but is also credited with the first Lancaster bomber to fly one hundred missions, unfortunately claims to special historic interest within the national context do not outweigh the building’s poor level of intactness.

    There are no listed buildings currently on the airfield, and therefore there are no group value considerations.

    The Type 5845/39 Watch Office at RAF Waddington, North Kesteven Lincolnshire (SK9854864961) has been too altered and does not meet the criteria for listing.

  3. agree with comment about Waddington – and what about Scampton – it had the Vulcan bombers too..

    • Niall Hammond

      Scampton has a number of listed buildings including the C Type hangers associated with its role in the RAF expansion period in the 1930’s and it’s role as a WWII Lancaster bomber base, in particular for 617 Squadron the Dam Busters.

  4. There is also the beautifully preserved, and quite unnerving, cold war bunker in York. Visited it a while ago, it was a fantastic place. Made all better by a remarkable guide, who really brought it to life. It looked as if one morning, everyone had just got up and left. And never went back.

  5. There are six Cold War aircraft “Barns” on MOD Wethersfield, Essex, dating back to the 1950’s and the USAF Nuclear “Victor Alert” period.They are looking very run down but must be the only existing barns of their type left in original condition. They are just calling out to be listed before they go the same way as many other building on the base, under the bulldozer. Deadline 2020.

  6. I was given a copy of clod war building for nuclear confrontation for a birthday present. Wow! i’m not a book reader but i read this cover to cover and still go back to it.

  7. Frank Bowron

    As a former “Cold War Warrior” I find the idea that after a nuclear holocaust, regions could be governed by a bunch of civil servants secure in their underground fortresses quite farcical. The apocalypse would not have been like Hiroshima/Nagasaki where outside help could be brought in: the whole country – indeed, the whole of Europe – would have been devastated, with little in the way of communication and distribution remaining. For those unlucky enough to have survived it would have been every man/woman for themselves. We attended our NBC lectures and scoffed at the idea that our officers would have been able to exert command and control over survivors – “Lord of the Flies” springs to mind. Those regional governors and civil servants might have been forwarned that when they eventually ran out of food and emerged into the wilderness it was likely they might be killed and eaten.

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