Cold War

The Cold War is the name given to the 40-year long stand-off between the Superpowers - the United States and the  Soviet Union - which defined the world's political map for most of the second half of the 20th century.

More than any previous conflict, the Cold War was wrapped in secrecy and deception. Throughout the period, structures were regularly dismantled or abandoned as the technology on which they relied became rapidly redundant. As a result, the architectural legacy of this very recent episode in our history is in some cases as poorly understood as any prehistoric monument!

English Heritage's Archaeological Survey and Investigation and Historic Buildings Teams are at the end of a major five year research project, covering a vast range of sites, monuments and installations from the Cold War era: tiny monitoring posts, radar sites, missile testing grounds, airfields, communication networks, command bunkers, test ranges covering many hundreds of hectares, to name just a few.

Blue Streak missile launch area at RAF Spadeadam, Cumbria (photo © English Heritage NMR, ref 17818)

Protection for Cold War sites

This project forms a key part of our research into Britain's Recent Military Heritage.Through our study, we have defined what buildings and installations characterise the Cold War era, and what it is important to protect for future generations. Our work has resulted in a series of recommendations published in 'Cold War Monuments: an assessment by the Monuments Protection Programme'.

These broad recommendations are now leading to specific proposals for protecting individual Cold War sites and structures, work which will be taken forward by English Heritage's Monuments Protection Programme team. Some of the most significant sites have already been protected as Scheduled Ancient Monuments, including the 1980s cruise missiles shelters at Greenham Common, West Berkshire.This site was not only central to NATO deterrent policy during the 1980s, but also became known around the world as the focus of protests against nuclear weapons.

Our research has covered the whole of the United Kingdom and has, of necessity, demanded an examination of sites in eastern Europe and beyond. For example, 'Blue Streak' missiles were ever only fully tested in the remote Australian outback, but the imposing concrete launchstands can still be found at the almost equally remote RAF range at Spadeadam in Cumbria!

One distinctive feature of British defence policy during the 1950s was a heavy commitment to an independent capacity to remain at the head of all areas of military technology, including nuclear weapons, guided missiles, defence electronics and aeronautics. Many of the facilities were world-class research centres; for example, the wind tunnel at the Royal Aircraft Establishment Bedford, which was used to test most British military aircraft designed and built after the Second World War.

Some of these installations are now being mothballed as museums, but many more are being stripped of their internal fixtures and demolished or converted to other uses. We have a brief opportunity to understand and record what Top Secret sites were once used for before the evidence is lost.

A wind tunnel for testing military aircraft at Bedford (photo by Wayne Cocroft © English Heritage 2002).

'Monumental' remains

Many of the remains examined by the project can justifiably be called 'monumental', for their severe concrete architecture,  their sheer size and their bizarre appearance. Within the so-called 'Pagodas' at Orfordness, a remote shingle spit off the Suffolk coast, tests were carried out in the 1950s on assembled nuclear missiles, minus the irradioactive cores, to simulate the strains they would experience during flight.

The land is now looked after by the National Trust and tours of the military complex are regularly available. Another monument investigated by the project is the bunker on the outskirts of York which would have housed the Royal Observer Corps 20 Group Headquarters in the event of a nuclear attack. The bunker is currently owned by English Heritage and open to the public.

The ‘Pagodas' at Orfordness, Suffolk. (photo by Alun Bull © English Heritage. NMR AA021750)

The 'Magic Mountain'

The 'Magic Mountain' - a massive double-storey semi-subterranean bunker at the former RAF base at Alconbury in Cambridgeshire - was completed about 1989. It is one of the largest and most sophisticated bunkers in the United Kingdom, representing the ultimate in Cold War bunker architecture.

Its role was to process intelligence data collected by the TR1 reconnaissance aircraft and to maintain their complex avionics systems. The sheer scale of this bunker and the massive investment evident in its construction identifies it as a key NATO asset during the late 1980s.

Its architecture is an eloquent testimony to the constant fear of a pre-emptive attack using nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons, and the determination to continue operating even in the most extreme horrors of a possible nuclear holocaust. It also reflects the importance of the wider global theme of constant vigilance, monitoring the numbers and state of readiness of opposing forces.

The Magic Mountain itself and painted murals scattered across the base were photographically recorded during the summer of 2001. The bunker and a number of associated TR1 'hardened' aircraft shelters have been put forward for protection by Scheduling.

The ‘Magic Mountain' at the former RAF base at Alconbury, Cambridgeshire. (photo by Steve Cole © English Heritage. NMR AA023746).

Further information

For further information about the Cold War project, contact Wayne Cocroft at English Heritage's Cambridge office on 01223 582770 or email

The publication arising from the research, entitled 'The Cold War: Building for Nuclear Confrontation 1946-1989', by Wayne Cocroft and Roger Thomas, in July 2003 is available from our online bookshop.

Visit the English Heritage Online bookshop

Cold War Publication


Wayne Cocroft
Senior Investigator
Heritage Protection Department
t: 01223 582770