Take the kids to … Scotland’s Secret Bunker, near St Andrews
In a nutshell
Rewind half a century to the height of the cold war. Leonid Brezhnev has gone potty, pressed the “red button” and dropped a clutch of nuclear bombs on Scotland. Half the population is dead; the other half is slowly dying from the fallout. But all is not lost. In a field in rural Fife, 30 metres beneath a lone brick farmhouse, the country’s top brass is keeping the show on the road. Their home for the foreseeable future is a 2,200 square-metre “command centre”, complete with radar control room, broadcasting studio, dormitories (for the military), posh suite (for the secretary of state for Scotland), plus the basic rudiments of “normal” life: washing facilities, cafeteria, cinema, chapel. Fortunately, the bombs never fell and the bunker was decommissioned in 1993. Fast forward to today and this warren of underground rooms is one of Scotland’s quirkiest tourist attractions.
Nuclear Armageddon doesn’t really lend itself to fun and frolics. Yet in July 1994, Susan White and Lee Donnison did their best to lighten the place up by becoming the first couple to tie the knot in the bunker’s chapel. Vows were exchanged after Susan, who worked in the cafe, walked down the 150-metre “aisle” (the concrete-encased entrance tunnel).
Best things about it
Most of the rooms have been left more or less untouched, so the sense of stepping into the shoes of the bunker’s former personnel happens fluidly – and alarmingly quickly. Despite all the bells and whistles of the radio and radar rooms, we all experienced a nervy feeling of being cut off from the outside world. Perhaps that’s no bad thing. For those who have the nerve, a film in the cinema depicts the gruesome realities of nuclear fallout. Warning: it’s like bomb-hit Dresden in 1945, only with skin lesions and body mutations (I made my pre-teens wait outside). A notable highlight is a full-scale exhibition of the CND movement in the cinema’s antechamber. With Trident nuclear submarines roaming Scotland’s coastline, it’s a frank reminder that the nuclear threat is still very much alive.
What about lunch?
The cafe is housed, appropriately, in the former canteen. Former regulations about men and women sitting separately have fortunately been scrapped. So, too, have the tinned spam and freeze-dried veggies. That said, the menu isn’t exactly abounding in fresh produce. There’s a ham or cheese salad (£6.70), but otherwise it’s barracks-style fare: toasted sandwiches (£4.20), hotdogs (£3.00), beans on toast (£3.50) and the like. Even so, I repeat, it’s not spam.
Exit through the gift shop?
Yes, and entry too. Ammo bags of military toys are on offer: binoculars, model tanks and helicopters, souvenir bullets, a kids’ Morse code kit. The best buys are prints of second world war newspaper front pages. “Battle of Britain: RAF on offensive”, Daily Sketch; “4000 ships, thousands of smaller vessels shelled by 640 guns”, Daily Mail. Audio guides are also available from the ticket desk (£2).
Public transport is limited. Cyclists could ride the six miles from the centre of St Andrews. In the Scottish summer holidays the no 93 bus runs from Leven, Anstruther and St Andrews to the site entrance. At other times, the no 95 between St Andrews and Anstruther stops a mile or so from the bunker on the B9131.
Value for money?
Not bad: adult £12.95, aged 4-15s £8.95, family £36.95. If you price in the added appreciation of fresh air and open countryside once you resurface, it’s well worth it.
Open daily from 1 March to 31 October, 10am–6pm (last entry 5pm).
8/10. Military facilities are usually off limits to holidaymakers, so the opportunity to nose around this formerly top-secret site feels like a rare treat. For kids, the emphasis may sway a little too much towards information than entertainment. Yet, as memorable experiences go, this no-longer-quite-so-secret bunker is hard to beat.