Brian Viner: Country Life

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The Independent Online

Hidden in woodland a mile from here is an underground concrete chamber about which hardly anyone knows, and most of those who did know have either died or forgotten. Fortunately, my mate Bill knows quite a lot about it, and he was able to put me in touch with his mate Ben, who knows even more.

The underground chamber was built during the Second World War and manned by the Royal Observer Corps (ROC), whose job was to spot and track enemy aircraft. A fortnight ago, I wrote about my new nonagenarian friend Madge, who lives in the nearby village of Stoke Lacy and recalled that most folk in wartime could recognise which were theirs.

One day she heard one of theirs passing over Stoke Lacy on its way home after helping to flatten Coventry, and moments later it jettisoned the rest of its bombs, blowing a cow into a tree. Which is nothing to joke about, of course, although I can't help wondering if a farmhand was sent up the tree to bring the poor creature down and reported, with mordant Welsh Marches wit, that it was "bloody Friesian" up there.

Anyway, whether Madge knew it or not, that errant German bomber's progress had been tracked via a network of ROC lookout posts that were located underground every six or seven miles across the entire country. And, after the war, they were maintained, until as recently as 1991, as a defence strategy in the event of the Cold War suddenly heating up.

Bill knew a guy who worked for British Telecom and had to conduct a monthly check of the ROC posts in this area, including the one near us. This guy later enjoyed 15 minutes of fame (locally, at least) for streaking at a Hereford United football match, Bill tells me, and I can only assume that his exhibitionism represented some kind of release from his discreet work keeping us all as safe as possible from Armageddon.

His main job was to ensure that the lines of communication were always functioning properly, especially in times of global tension, when, odd as it seems now, everyone thought it far from unlikely that Mr Khrushchev or later Mr Brezhnev might decide to drop an atomic bomb on Britain. The BT man took Bill with him on one of these checks once (having perhaps failed to read the small print at the bottom of the Official Secrets Act) and Bill reports that he opened a piece of apparatus that looked startlingly like a Breville toasted-sandwich-maker, then said "hello" into it.

He promptly got a "hello" back from somebody in Bristol, whose job it was to keep in touch with all the ROC posts as far north as Ludlow. The task of each ROC post was quite clear: to monitor nuclear attack. Bill put me in touch with Ben, a former ROC operative, who explained that training was carried out weekly, on site in summer and in a draughty parish hall in winter.

Ben and his colleagues were trained how to set up instruments that would measure the location and ferocity of a nuclear attack. They learnt how to measure the air pressure, which would show the force of the explosion, with trigonometry then used to find its centre, and weather patterns examined to show which areas would cop the radioactive fallout. I'm glad I didn't have to do any of it. I was always lousy at trigonometry.

It's rather satisfying to be glib about it now. At least the modern-day risk of being blown up by fundamentalist suicide bombers relies on really bad luck: being in the wrong place at the wrong time. That wasn't so of the nuclear threat. It wasn't a question of venturing on to the wrong train or into the wrong nightclub.

Yet it still seems almost unbelievable that less than two decades ago the ROC teams were being taken away two or three times a year for a weekend of intensive training, on top of their weekly get-togethers. Did they truly think they still had a useful civil defence function, or did they just like spending time together in confined spaces?

Either way, there's more to our quiet rural backwater than meets the eye, at least until you look closely at the ground.