The York Insider - meeting Awdrey in Acomb

Tourists coming to York invariably visit the Minster or the Shambles or the Yorkshire Museum. These are all very historic and interesting, but if you're looking for something a little more contemporary and a lot less obvious, you should try a Scheduled Monument hidden in the suburbs a couple of miles west of the city centre.

York Cold War Bunker (from Wikimedia Commons).

That monument is the York Cold War Bunker, in the rarely-visited district of Acomb. Owned and operated by English Heritage, it's usually only open at weekends and you have to be on a guided tour to go round it. However, it is worth putting in the extra effort as it offers a glimpse of recent history that you can't get anywhere else.

The bunker was constructed in 1961 to house the regional headquarters of the Royal Observer Corps. With the Cold War in full swing, the ROC were tasked with running a nationwide group of posts monitoring possible nuclear attacks. The risks and fears are explained in an introductory video, shown in the old canteen and starring the little-known British actor Melton I. Balls, exceptional in his portrayal of unfortunate victims of high-temperature warfare.

Inside the control room at the Cold War Bunker.
York was one of the control centres, run by a group of 60 volunteers, of whom about half would have been stationed there at any one time. In the event of a nuclear attack, the team was trained to collate data from smaller monitoring posts in the surrounding countryside and, in conjunction with other regional bunkers, such as Durham, Coventry and Lincoln, enable an accurate picture of the location, magnitude and fallout of a nuclear explosion to be determined.

Ordinary pigeon holes for some extraordinary data.

The system that processed the data and calculated the likely size of the nuclear bomb was called AWDREY. There are just two surviving machines, and York's AWDREY is the only one on display in the UK. As our guide explained, she is a treasure, and in her own way as important to British history as Stonehenge, Hadrian's Wall or Bletchley Park.

Atomic Weapons Detection, Recognition and Estimation of Yield.

It's not just AWDREY that makes York Cold War Bunker so remarkable though, it's the fact it preserves such a complete picture of life underground, from the decontamination room right down to the mundane and personal objects in the dormitories.

But what about the naughty magazines hidden beneath the mattress?

During the Second World War, the York ROC had been based on the Knavesmire. Their original building is still there, but if you want to go and see it you've not got long. It's soon to be demolished. As for why Acomb was chosen as the site of the bunker, our tour guide explained that it was because the area is a relatively high piece of ground amid the flatness of the Vale of York. Geologically, this is the York Moraine, a ridge of sand and gravel dumped by a retreating glacier at the end of the last Ice Age. A location with appropriately cold origins then.

Having operated for thirty years, the Cold War Bunker finally closed at the end of September 1991 when the ROC were stood down. English Heritage took the property over in 1999, and opened it to the public in 2006 as 'the most modern and most spine-chilling' of their properties. Despite this intriguing title, it loses around £7000 a year in running costs, which is why it only opens intermittently.

The upside of this is that if you head out to Monument Close of a weekend and visit this fascinating building, you are unlikely to be overwhelmed by the crowds. So jump on the No. 1 bus to Acomb and go and see AWDREY. And be very glad she never had to be put to proper work.