Steven Rittey from Wheel2Wheel holidays gets on his bike in search of secret history – starting at the Imperial War Museum in Salford Quays.
Since the 1990s decommissioning of top secret UK military sites that would have been critical in the aftermath of a Cold War nuclear attack; many former bunkers, Royal Observer Corps posts and other facilities have been given new leases of life as tourist attractions. One such place is located a few miles outside of Nantwich in Cheshire.
This gave me an idea. I could cycle from the impressive and well-known Imperial War Museum North in Salford Quays to the ‘secret’ bunker in the Cheshire countryside. This would be a unique cycle ride offering an education in war history with the added bonus of stopping off at some of region’s local attractions and attractive market towns.
Imperial War Museum North (Salford Quays)
Ride out to the bunker
Approximately 50 miles from Manchester, Hack Green was to be the site of the North West Regional Government had the Cold War turned ‘hot’ and was upgraded in the 1980s so the country could still function despite atomic devastation. Classified until 1993 and 35,000ft in size on three levels, the complex has been converted into an excellent Cold War museum that provides a nightmarish view into a Britain devastated by nuclear war.
I set off from the Imperial War Museum North designed by Daniel Libeskind and one of my favourite buildings in Greater Manchester. I particularly like the architectural story in its form. Each of the building segments is designed like a jigsaw to join together conflicts around the world. The surrounding Salford Quays has also changed significantly in the past decade and is home to MediaCityUK with a major regional BBC office, the new Coronation Street / ITV studios and the Lowry Arts Complex. Not so long ago, this was an urban wasteland with the remnants of post-industrial Britain making the area a no-go area.
Steven Rittey from Wheel to Wheel Holidays
Hack Green Secret Nuclear Bunker
I headed down the A56 towards Altrincham before riding through Lymm and into the quiet Cheshire lanes. This is a popular area for cycling with much of the car traffic taken onto the surrounding A roads or motorways. The area is largely flat and it is not uncommon to see a procession of cyclists going through the lanes at the weekend around the golden triangle of Alderley Edge, Knutsford and Wilmslow.
As well as being famous for being ‘where the footballers live’, Cheshire has a rich history in salt mining and is still in evidence today. There is a large salt works near Northwich and Nantwich has a brine outdoor swimming pool. I also stopped off to see one of the region’s other famous exports – Bentley Motors and their factory just outside Crewe.
Heading into Nantwich, a traditional English market town with Tudor buildings and a thriving artisan produce market; I stopped for a locally produced cheese slice and some organic Welsh apples. A welcome change from my usual mid-ride cheese and ham sandwich meal deal and chocolate milk!
Map of UK Early Warning Systems
As I left the town, I headed back into the quiet country lanes following the recently installed ‘Secret Bunker’ brown signs that guide you to its remote location about 3 miles from Nantwich. Once you see the bunker’s radio transmitter, it is a short ride down another lane to the entrance.
The bunker design is cold, heavy-duty concrete with large blast doors that guide you to the café and the tour. I don’t want to give too much away about the inside as Hack Green is well worth a visit, but there is a comprehensive self-guided tour showing decommissioned nuclear warheads, a BBC studio and a now very retro looking BT exchange centre.
As I left the Hack Green Nuclear Bunker behind and cycled back towards Crewe in the autumnal haze, my ride made me reflect on the Cold War and how it must have been hard to live with the real threat of nuclear war. It is strange to think that there was an ordered, secret, underground world that functioned for the worst of times and was never used for its intended purpose.
I guess it is a sign of the times that one of the most secret sites in NATO is now a not so secret tourist attraction and quirky cyclist café stop located off the A530 to Whitchurch. Just remember to follow the brown signs…!