On the edge of a field just a few miles outside the ancient Roman city of Bath sits a shed with a rusting tin roof. If you were to pass it in a hurry, like the commuters on the trains that rush by just a few feet away, you wouldn’t give it a second glance.
Which is the whole point, of course. When governments build secret underground storage facilities, they tend not to make them look like tourist attractions. This place was designed to resemble ordinary industry, so that it wouldn’t interest people. Now disused, it has degraded gracefully and according to plan, and resembles ordinary abandonment.
It’s been here since the war, fading away like the British Empire. But this innocuous hut guards an entrance, a gateway to another empire. Some people say you can still get down there, with courage and powerful flashlights. I’m drawn to it, like I’m drawn to mysteries of geology. The internet gives me hints and photographs, but I want to see for myself.
Few among my friends share any interest at all in old rusting shacks, no matter how mysterious an empire they guard. I decide to go and investigate with canine company.
Which is a good choice, because you can’t get there by car. You have to walk.
My neighbor’s dog Ella is a well-trained black labrador, nervous with other dogs but happy as long as she has human company. We drive to the nearby village of Bathford and park the car. Ella is at first dismissive.
“This doesn’t look terribly exciting,” she says as she leaps out of the car. “Can’t we go to a park? I want to chase a ball.”
No Ella, we are not going to the park. We’re going on an adventure.
“You and your adventures. Oh, can I eat that?”
She pauses to sniff a grotty dust-covered object. Dust fountains up around her snout and she sneezes. I close the car up and shoulder my rucksack and camera bag. Ella looks at me.
“Did you bring any sticks?”
No, Ella. Today is not about sticks. We’re exploring.
“I can find a stick if you like.”
Ella looks at me with disgust as I put her lead on, but doesn’t complain. We stride eastwards, following the dusty alley as it narrows into a footpath alongside Bathford’s playing field. Other dogs have been here, leaving little piles of welcome. Ella sniffs them—it’s only polite—but refrains from adding to the collection.
Some geographical context: We’re a few miles to the east of Bath, where tourists arrive by the busload and trainload from London. They visit the abbey, they take an overpriced and underwhelming excursion to Stonehenge, and spend a few hours in the ancient Roman baths before having a dip in their modern equivalent at their hotels. Few of them ever venture out this way, though. Which is a pity, because it’s beautiful here.
“Even secrets have smells,” Ella says. “A dog could find them without much trouble.”The footpath is roughly parallel to the A4, once the main road linking Bath and London, before the motorways were built. Through the same valley run other, older methods of transportation. There’s a small river, astride which, a few miles upstream, you’ll find Peter Gabriel’s recording studio in the village of Box, and Brunel’s railway.
It is Brunel’s railway we want to see, or more accurately, a little-known former railyard right next to it.
To our right, to the south, the ground rises quickly. Buried inside this hill is a huge underground city known as Monkton Farleigh Quarry, used during the Second World War for ammunition storage. Just a few minutes’ googling will reveal that it has attracted explorers and adventurers for decades. People have gone to great lengths to get inside it, and have published many photos of what they found. The ghosts of industrial-scale storage, mainly. Conveyor belts. Rusting machines. Metal doors. Incongruous underground toilets.
A few years ago, a secretive commercial company purchased the remaining usable bits of the underground complex and promptly sealed all the entrances. This company is in the secure storage business. Other companies pay it a fortune to store their secrets in caves under the Wiltshire countryside. This is where our information society has taken us.
The company used to be called Wansdyke Security, and those same explorers and adventurers have ventured as close to its subterranean extremities as they can. There are tunnels that are bricked up, and beyond the bricks can be heard soft humming sounds, they say. The sounds of Security.
You can make up all the conspiracy theories you like, but Wansdyke has skirted round them with a re-branding exercise. It’s now called Restore, and it has a colorful, friendly website packed with stock photographs of smiling people holding boxes of paperwork. Restore boasts 2,152,782 square feet of “highly secure, flood-proof storage space.” Miles and miles of whitewashed walls and sparse lighting. Shelves piled with boxes, boxes stuffed with papers. The reality of secure storage is like the dullest part of your local library, but without the free Wi-Fi.
The conspiracy theorists would say these are state secrets stored down here; the stuff of nuclear red buttons, faked Moon landings, and hushed-up alien encounters. I say: If you were trying to keep that sort of stuff secret, would you seriously store it in a place like this? Where people gather by the huddled dozen in damp tunnels just outside, tripping over the accumulated litter of the neglecting decades, their head torches lighting up their excited faces above and the rat feces below?
No, neither would I. I’d hide stuff like that in an inconspicuous desk drawer, in an inconspicuous office building on a shabby side street at the outer edge of one of London’s less desirable districts.
I say as much, and Ella snorts.
“Even secrets have smells,” she says. “A dog could find them without much trouble.”
The weather is gorgeous. Above us there’s a fabulous blue sky whisped with cirrus. The sun is blazing. This is the kind of hot weather the English crave all winter, then promptly moan about when it turns up because they can’t cope with the heat and the burning and the uncomfortable public transport. Even so, when the heat fades and the rain returns, they’ll moan about that too. English weather is inconstant, unreliable, and subject to rapid, almost random change. That’s why it is such an important topic of conversation.
Ella couldn’t care less about the weather, which is one quality that marks her out as an excellent walking companion. She frolics among the hedges and shrubs, sniffing everything in sight and quite a few additional things that only dogs can see.
The path takes us deeper into the countryside and further from reliable phone network signals. We march eastwards toward the sunshine, toward the mystery.
All the entrances to Monkton Farleigh Quarry got sealed up years ago, so you can’t get inside the underground city any more. But you can get pretty close. The shed Ella and I seek is the most atmospheric and spooky of those entrances: an abandoned railyard known as Farleigh Down.
We cross a couple of fields, easy hiking, fabulous fresh air. Ella bounds through the long grass as if stalking a deaf antelope. She paddles in the edges of the soft-flowing river and looks expectant, but I’m not throwing sticks for her there today. We have other things to accomplish.
Turn a corner, through a gate, over a stile, and the path turns suddenly to the right. This is the key moment. This is what we came for. We’ve researched this; we know this is the moment to turn left. There’s an unofficial path this way, crossing a ditch and going through some thicker trees (but so many people have had this idea and done this same thing, it’s no longer any trouble to get through).
And here it is. A brick building. Graffiti-strewn, silent. Just yards in front of us is the railway line, Brunel’s masterpiece of geographic re-ordering. But stretching away from us, further east and skirting the edge of the rails, is the railyard site. Sitting grandly at one end of it, like a decrepit former seaside theatre, is a large brick building with a rusting corrugated roof.
From this yard, trainloads of ammunition were diverted from the mainline and sorted, ready for transfer to Monkton Farleigh Quarry a mile or so to the south. This old shed—still grand and imposing, despite its age and its condition—covered the slope down which trucks would be run on narrow-gauge tracks. At the bottom of the slope they would turn a corner and enter an underground yard, where the shells and bullets would be placed on a conveyor belt that carried them off.
I don’t scare that easily, the dark doesn’t bother me—but this place is seriously spooky.Ella looks cautious, but perhaps she’s responding to me. This place feels special, the way history everywhere feels special. It’s silent now, there’s only birdsong. But it retains an atmosphere, a personality. We crunch over the rough gravel and approach the shed.
Ella’s tail hangs down. She looks around as if searching out something more jolly, more dog-like. Her nose twitches.
“This is what we came for?” she asks, incredulous. “I sense vermin, and age, and fear. I don’t like it.”
Now, we can hear broken pieces of the metal roof groaning as they rub against one another in the light breeze. Unng, unng, they say. Ella looks even more nervous as I clamber up into the shed—its floor is about a meter above ground level. She stays below, and growls a tiny little warning.
“I really, really don’t think you should go in there,” she says.
It’s fine, Ella. There’s no one here.
“That’s what bothers me. It smells of trouble.”
Peering down into the entrance tunnel, I see graffiti. This place has magnetically attracted local teenagers for 60 years, and they have left their mark. Warnings are scribbled on the walls. Cartoon ghosts. I gingerly go down the slope, watching my step. The floor is covered with rubble, bits of broken metal, litter. Above me, sunlight breaks through cracks in the iron sheeting. The wind picks up momentarily, and I hear the unng unng sound of the roof slowly disintegrating.
Back up top, out of sight, Ella whines.
“Where are you? I can’t see you.”
I’m just going down here, Ella. I’ll be back in a moment.
This is silly. I don’t scare that easily, the dark doesn’t bother me—but this place is seriously spooky. Its personality, visions of wartime struggle and sweat, the thought of the fragile manmade hole drilled through millions of tons of West Country limestone—it all seeps out of the brickwork on either side, making me shiver as I go deeper.
At the bottom of the slope I can look round the corner into the underground truckyard, but all I see is blackness. I brought a flashlight but it’s useless, dwarfed by the scale of this place. I realize that the sense of dread isn’t caused by the darkness itself, but by the knowledge that the darkness stretches away so far into the side of the valley, right inside the hills to the south. There’s a mile of vivid darkness to negotiate, and that’s before you reach Restore’s domain.
With one last shudder, I turn back, and hurriedly make my way to the surface. The sunlight warms me.
Ella, of course, welcomes me as if I’ve been away for years. Her tail wags so hard that her entire hindquarters wag with it. Panting a little in the heat, she looks like she’s laughing with relief.
“Oh thank Dog!” she cries. “Thank Dog you’re back safely! I want to lick you!”
She does so.
Calm down Ella. I was only gone a moment.
“But a moment is forever for a dog,” she points out. Her tail is still wagging but less frantically now. “Can we go and torment some rabbits now?”
No. Let’s explore some more.
We walk round the rest of the railyard site. Just a few years ago, there were wartime rails embedded in the ground here, but everything’s been ripped up. Now it’s a wasteland of rubble, pushed into piles by machinery. Only the shed itself remains—aloof, dignified, unconcerned by progress.
I wonder how much longer that’s going to last, I say. Nature has taken her time destroying this place; there will be opportunities for return visits. With more companions and better flashlights. We needn’t go far, I don’t think. One cavern is much like the rest, and mysteries of history don’t have to be tangible objects. Besides, I don’t think there’s much that’s secret about this place any more.
“Have you got any sticks?” asks Ella, impatient.
Not now, Ella. Not right now.