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Bunker

Started: 2014-06-04 20:25:28

Submitted: 2014-06-04 21:31:39

Visibility: World-readable

Saturday, 24th May: in which the intrepid narrator visits a Cold War bunker and a windmill, then returns to Edinburgh to fly home

I booked our plane tickets in and out of Edinburgh long before I figured out precisely what I wanted to see in Great Britain. When I realized that York and its world-class railway museum was only a few hours from Edinburgh by train, my first thought was to stage a long day-trip to the museum, but Kiesa talked me out of that idea and convinced me that we ought to actually stay in York. Had I been able to plan all of my itinerary in parallel I might have opted to fly out of somewhere more conveniently located to York, but as it was we had to head back to Edinburgh to catch our flight, and the only way we were going to get to the airport in time for our flight on Sunday morning was to stay in a hotel in Edinburgh on Saturday night. I picked an early afternoon train departure to give us more time in York, so after breakfast (and its atrocious coffee) we checked out of our hotel and left our bags at the front desk while we played tourist for a few hours.

York Cold War Bunker
York Cold War Bunker

Our first stop was the York Cold War Bunker, a short bus ride away. (Until now we hadn't actually ridden on any proper buses, despite Calvin's requests. Our bus turned out to be a proper English double-decker bus, so we climbed the stairs to sit on the top and look out the front window, which Calvin thought was great.) The bunker is open by guided tour only, and was built during the Cold War to be staffed by civilian volunteers to collect information on nuclear bomb blasts and track the expected path of fallout in hopes of targeting the government and military response and relief effort in the right places. (Government planners hoped they might be able to save one-third of the population in the event of an all-out war, though I don't know what sort of bomb yields they were expecting.)

Situation room at the York Cold War Bunker
Situation room at the York Cold War Bunker

(Alternate caption: "Gentlemen, you can't fight in here! This is the War Room!")

We made up 60% of the first tour of the day; we were joined by a friendly older English couple who might have been from Leeds if I remembered right. The tour took us up the steps through the main entrance, past the decontamination rooms used to wash off radioactive dust, and down into the main body of the bunker, most of which was not actually below grade level except for the berm built around it. (The bunker was not designed to survive a direct attack; the best it could do was survive a two-megaton blast six miles away, precisely where a minor military target was located.) The focus of the bunker was a large plotting room where plotters would gather reports from other, smaller foxhole-sized reporting stations and collect the best available information on the precise location of any bomb blasts. The bunker was built in the early 1960s, shortly before the Cuban Missile Crisis, and remained online until shortly after the Cold War ended. It was preserved more or less intact as it was when it was decommissioned, showing the slow progress of modernization in a hardened facility: why fix what wasn't broken? We saw the display of a computer designed solely to automate the process of finding and reporting bomb blasts, featuring several digits of Nixie tubes. (The backup reporting mechanism was a pinhole camera mounted on the roof, which needed to be changed every six to eight hours, which would capture the precise location of the bomb on photographic film.)

We watched a short video on the background of the bunker, and the effects of nuclear war, which was too much for Calvin; he wanted to be carried for the rest of the tour. (This evening, while sorting through my pictures a week and a half later, Calvin saw the picture of the bunker and mentioned that he was scared by the video he saw there.)

(The bunker is, apparently, not above playing up its own surreal nature; our guide mentioned that they had recently screened Dr. Strangelove, or: How I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb in the bunker's recreation room, where we watched the short video that Calvin didn't like.)

Historic telephone switch at the York Cold War Bunker
Historic telephone switch at the York Cold War Bunker

We left the bunker after the tour and walked a few blocks to Holgate Windmill, a historic windmill built to grind flour that has been recently restored to its original, eighteenth-century state and now grants tours on its once-a-month open days, which happened to be while we were in York. We climbed to the top of the windmill, stopping just short of the cup at the top (which rotates automatically to seek the wind, so they didn't want visitors crawling around when it did), giving us a good chance to study the mechanism inside. Much of it had been replaced in the past few years, but the building itself and some of the gears were original. (I was amused to note that the windmill had been converted to use steam power, but the steam engine was lost long ago when the farm was developed into houses.)

Holgate Windmill
Holgate Windmill

We left the windmill in the rain and waited for a bus to take us back to the city center, which seemed like a drier option than trying to walk ourselves. We looked around for a place to eat lunch (since I rejected Kiesa's idea of heading back to the chocolate shop we snacked at yesterday, on the grounds that they don't actually serve actual meals) and ended up at a small Cornish pasty shop. After eating we still had time before our train left, so we wandered around York in the rain. We thought about going back to York Minster, possibly to climb the tower (since our original tourist tickets were still good for a year) but decided against it when we saw the long queue waiting in the rain, and decided to look at one more bookshop, Fossgate Books, where Kiesa found the second volume of Roald Dahl's memoir.

Calvin watches Kiesa shop at Fossgate Books in York
Calvin watches Kiesa shop at Fossgate Books in York

We headed back to the train station to catch our train, after picking up our bags at the hotel, and arrived on the platform four minutes before the train was supposed to arrive. (The train was a few minutes late, giving us slightly more time on the platform.) Our train was another InterCity 125 trainset, run by two diesel locomotives, even though the train ran from London King's Cross to Edinburgh along the entirely-electrified East Coast Main Line. We ended up boarding our carriage through the wrong door, to avoid the crowd at one end, and had to traverse back to the other end of the carriage to stow our luggage because the side we'd entered on had no luggage storage.

East coast 43295 pulls into York Railway Station
East coast 43295 pulls into York Railway Station

We found our seats and spent the next two-and-a-half hours riding north to Edinburgh, watching the English countryside roll by and glimpsing the Northumberland coast out the window.

When we arrived in Edinburgh we dropped our bags by the left-luggage counter, then walked to Henderson's for supper. After eating we picked up our bags and caught a taxi to our hotel for the night, the newly-rebranded Holiday Inn Express Edinburgh Airport (which is so newly-rebranded that Google Maps still thought it was "Quality Hotel Edinburgh Airport"). We checked in and found, in our assigned room, two twin beds plus a pulled-out sofa bed made up for Calvin. I considered this state of affairs for a minute, weighing my interest in sleeping in the same bed as Kiesa (rather than merely in the same room as her), and remembered that I had, while making my hotel arrangements for this trip, rejected entire hotels on the grounds that they did not have double beds in their family rooms, and headed back to the front desk to complain, armed with my hard-copy reservation that clearly showed the double bed. The front desk tried, briefly, to suggest that two twin beds was an "upgrade" for a family room, which I was not impressed by, and eventually consented to give me the room I'd reserved: a double bed plus a sofa bed. We switched rooms and found that this new room was lacking bedding on the sofa bed; Kiesa went down to the front desk to complain this time and soon one of the front-desk staff appeared with proper bedding. With the proper bedding finally established, we worked on our final packing for our flight home in the morning, then went to bed.

For more photos on Saturday 24th May, see Photos on 2014-05-24. For Kiesa's parallel account, see York – Day 3 / Scotland – Day 9.

If people are going to read the intimate details of my life, I might as
well take the opportunity to bore them a little with mundane accounts of
trivial events told in run-on sentences in the process.
- Bitscape, 05 May 1999, in a Random Ramblings entry