A Return To RAF Rudloe Manor
Photo: © Derek Hawkins
In the mid-90s ufologists and bunker busters became obsessed with the historic market town of Corsham and the rumours of the government secrets that lie beneath. The following decade, I caught the underground bug and explored many of the 60 miles of underground tunnels in the area for myself.
The whole town sits on top of a huge network of old stone quarries dating back to around 1840. The the War Office - the precursor to the modern-day Ministry of Defence (MOD) - started acquiring the stone quarries for the two world wars and they were put to use as ammunition stores and underground factories. Later parts of them became highly classified nuclear-proof strongholds, other underground areas are still used for secretive government projects today.
I've spent the last year writing a book, 'Hidden, Forbidden & Off-Limits', which focuses on the former Rudloe site, as well as several other top secret underground bunkers in the area and across the country. Having immersed myself in tales of my own underground adventures from the early 2000s, I was curious to see how Corsham has changed in the last two decades.
So, one unseasonably warm winter day, like an urbex pilgrimage, I drove to the underground mecca of Corsham. En route, I spotted an old steam engine that sits in the front gardens of a row of terraced houses on the main road into the town. This old engine is a noticeable landmark that indicates you're getting close. After this, you pass the grand opening of Box Tunnel, a railway tunnel completed in 1841 that carries trains right past the underground secrets beneath Corsham.
A few minutes later, I found my self driving alongside the MOD's perimeter fence on Westwells Road. This was the site made famous by ufologists that was formerly known as RAF Rudloe. It was believed that Rudloe was the home of many "ultra secret" government projects and departments. This led to the base being described as the British equivalent to Area 51 and the highest point of security in the UK.
The first thing I noticed as I arrived at the fence line was the state of the old barrack-like buildings, which sit in the shadow of a large military communications tower. The huts have badly deteriorated over the last couple of decades, paint is now peeling off the walls. I then reached the roundabout, where you can still find the MOD's old gatehouse. It's no longer used and is also looking a little neglected and overgrown, having been replaced by a newer entrance further along the road.
Just after the roundabout, there's a single storey brick building on the left, which I think is or was a BT telephone exchange, almost opposite this on the right is where the Post Office used to stand but is now new housing. Next to this are more new homes, built on what used to be the car park for Corsham's only nightclub, The Flamingo Club.
Then on the right, I see the famous mound through the perimeter fence, the mound that houses an old personnel lift, which would have once taken you down in to Burlington. This was to be the alternative government headquarters in the event of a nuclear war. Hidden 30 metres below Corsham, it could hold up to 4,000 officials. The bunker had everything its inhabitant would need to keep them safe for months as they continued to run the country from below ground.
The doors in the side of the mound are now boarded up and padlocked, but it looks as enticing as ever. Although its grassy covering isn't as smooth and well-kept as it once was, the mound has a few weeds on it and looks a little untidy. There's also a bit of the concrete reinforcement poking out of the top, like the grass has sort of worn away over the years.
On my left, as I pass over a new roundabout, are the MOD's new cybersecurity buildings, constructed in 2010. The modern-looking office blocks run all along the left side of the road, as far as the main vehicle entrance towards the bottom of Westwells Road. Of course, their security looks as tight here as ever. Just past the main entrance I swing right on to a small lane, which bends to the left and used to give access to Sands Quarry. I stop at a wide gate on the bend in the lane. The gate looks old and uncared for, but behind it I can see a new building that looks like a digital fortress. This is a new data centre that is operated by Ark, a secure data storage company. Ark is based on a former plot of MOD land, but they also have access to 90,000 square metres of underground tunnels below.
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Beside the gate protecting the data centre, an old sign reads, "the equipment and fencing on this site, are the property of (MOD) Navy. No parking in front of these gates." I move on. I turned the car around and drove back onto Westwells Road, retracing my journey in reverse towards the roundabout, where I took the exit on the right to Park Lane. From this junction, you used to be able to see a small building housing a more-modern and still active lift shaft into the tunnels below, but today it was too overgrown to make it out.
A little further along Park Lane, I spy a security man with a dog walking around the inside of the fence, inside the grounds. This is similar to something that the 90s conspiracy theorists reported. They often said they saw people walking dogs around the area, but if you watch them for long enough they'll slip through a gate and go into the base revealing them to be covert security guards. The dog walker I saw today wasn't so clandestine, he was openly patrolling within the MOD's fences.
I drove past Hudswell Lane that takes its name from the quarry below it, and Allen Road, which also hints at the area's quarrying history. Ralph Allen was a philanthropist in the 18th century who owned quarries near Corsham. Unplanned, I swing into Allen Road, which after little more than 20 metres leads onto a gravelly car park on the edge of a small park.
This park is deceptively interesting. There are several large concrete slabs visible in the park. Two of these are the tops of the now sealed Hudswell Lifts, two shafts that gave access to the MOD's Tunnel Quarry below. As I looked out across the park, I noticed another car to my left, a black Volvo with just a driver sitting in it. I can't help but feel a little paranoid all of a sudden. Of course, this could have been someone sitting in their car for their lunch break or someone who's about to go on a dog walk, but a dark car with a single occupant so close to an area like this does make you feel like someone's watching and waiting for people like me to get too close.
Shaking it off, I drove back out onto Park Lane, which is now lined with new-build houses on the left-hand side. I then turned into Peel Circus, which is always a little bit unnerving because there's really no reason to drive along there other than to get to the secretive CCC. This is to this day one of the UK's best kept secrets. It is an active government bunker that is known by a few aliases, including the Corsham Computer Centre, and its official name the Command and Control Centre. Above ground the site consists of nothing more than a doorway in to a mound of earth, obscured from public view by a ring of trees and vegetation.
I'm surprised to see that even though the road now sits alongside two new housing estates, the road itself hasn't changed. The famous "CCC" sign is still there, the one that has looked over the opening to the narrow road for at least the last 20 years.
The first thing you might notice on Peel Circus is that there's nothing to see here. There are no cameras on the road, but a sign reminds drivers and pedestrians that they are on MOD land, telling them "the public are allowed permissive access on the defined path along this road." Continuing along the lane, the kerbside is lined by what look like very old street lamps, the old concrete pillar types that date back to the 1950s and 1960s. This once again brings home how little this road has changed over the decades, perhaps a deliberate ploy so as not to draw attention to what lies hidden at the end of the road.
As I pass another sign, this one a little more descriptive, reading "Corsham Computer Centre," I spot another suspicious car pulled up on the left. This time a black BMW, again with just one person sitting in the driver's seat. Again, I'm probably being paranoid, but these ominously placed dark cars do make you wonder. Why is this man sitting in his car on a military road?
Just after this suspect vehicle, the road passes through the gates of CCC. The many warning signs and cameras tell me I've reached the limit of my drive along the road. The bold text warns that photos are prohibited and guard dogs are on patrol. "This is a prohibited area," the largest of the signs shouts at me in heavy capitals. I have no choice but to do a three-point turn in the gateway and get out of there.
I turn back on to Park Lane and pass Hartham Park Quarry, which is still being worked as a stone quarry. It was here that I had my first underground experience as a teenager, when the quarry was open to the public as a mining museum.
I realise that I've somehow missed the turning for Skynet Drive, which I had intended to drive along. So as I made my way on to Bradford Road. Here I find the other end of Skynet Drive, which is home to what was the Command Defence Communications Network (CDCN), now a military communications hub run by Airbus Defence & Space.
I find that Skynet Drive has changed a lot. Like all the other roads I'd driven along through Corsham, this road was also lined on one side by new houses. It's incredible actually, the population must be 10 times higher here than it was 20 years ago. Then I realised how I'd managed to miss the turning to Skynet Drive from Park Lane. Halfway along the lane, after the gates to Airbus the road was closed to cars by a red barrier.
There didn't used to be a very obvious security presence at CDCN, but now the entrance is gated and watched over by a guardhouse. Since I can no longer drive along Skynet Drive, I'm forced to do another three-point turn in the gate. Unfortunately, what could have been a slick manoeuvre turned into me lingering at the entrance a little longer than I should when I failed to put the car in reverse and randomly jerked forward. Not ideal when you don't want to draw attention to your presence.
Given the new beefed-up security on Skynet Drive, I suspect that if I'm going to get stopped by MOD police anywhere in the area, then it's going to be on this lane. You can't access the new housing from the lane, so there's really no reason for someone to drive along Skynet Drive unless they're heading for Airbus.
Back on Bradford Road, I do encounter a police car, and I wonder if they could be looking for me. They came from the opposite direction, so I ended up passing them. Perhaps if I'd lingered on Skynet Drive for longer, they'd have driven in and spoken to me. I decided to test them and try my luck. Instead of finishing my tour of Corsham as I'd intended to at this point, I took a left at the double mini-roundabout to do another lap of Westwells Road and Park Lane. Just past the turning for CCC, I saw the police car again, they had done a lap, but in the opposite direction.
This could be the perfect chance for them to pull me over, but this could be tricky as they were coming at me head-on. They really needed to be behind me to pull me over. I end up having to give way to them because there's a car parked on the left. The driving officer gave me a polite wave to say thank you. At this point we were face-to-face, perhaps the fact I was alone in the car eased their concerns. I mean, I'm unlikely to be climbing over fences and causing problems for them on my own. Or perhaps they weren't looking for me at all.
Having not so daringly escaped the clutches of the police, I left the area. But returning to Corsham had been an eye-opening experience. Even though many of the town's underground secrets have now been declassified, it's clear that there's still plenty of tantalising subterranean projects going on there.
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