Mushroom Clouds over the Dreaming Spires

Until recently, when contemplating a future of climate chaos, unaffordable housing, dystopian tech, xenophobic nationalism, and mental health epidemics, millennials at least had one consolation: unlike their parents and grandparents, they didn’t have to worry about nuclear war with Russia. Alas, no more. The recent resumption of atomic sabre-rattling from the Kremlin means a new generation is learning to live with the possibility of sudden vaporisation, which makes this as good a time as any to delve into Oxford’s previous experiences under the shadow of the Bomb. Nowhere is beyond the reach of a nuclear conflict, but here are three sites in the city and its surrounding countryside that were particularly bound up with the atomic arms race.

UKWMO Headquarters, Cowley

If the Cold War had ever turned hot, it is not clear whether Oxford itself would have been the target of a direct nuclear strike. According to the best guesswork of British defence planners in the early 1970s, the city was not among the 106 UK locations expected to be hit in such a conflict.[1] However, similar towns such as Cambridge were on the list, and the actual distribution of the Soviet bombs would have depended on the precise circumstances leading to catastrophe.

In any event, one location in the city was supposed to keep working regardless of whether or not central Oxford was replaced with an atomic fireball. In 1981, part of the former Cowley Barracks was converted into the national headquarters of the United Kingdom Warning and Monitoring Organisation (UKWMO), the body tasked with keeping the official minutes on doomsday. Throughout the Cold War, the government maintained an official policy of ‘civil defence’, insisting that Britain could survive World War Three in reasonable shape provided that various contingency measures were put in place. The UKWMO’s role was to transmit the initial news of an imminent strike (the infamous ‘four-minute warning’), and then use data generated by a nationwide network of Royal Observer Corps bunkers to track the location and magnitude of nuclear explosions, along with the distribution of subsequent radioactive fallout.[2] You can see UKWMO personnel reacting to a fictional nuclear bombardment in a public information broadcast of 1962, in which various tweed-clad extras project an air of sedate sangfroid slightly at odds with the film’s mordant title, The Hole in the Ground. One such ‘hole’ existed on the Cowley site, an ROC bunker serving as the command centre for other observation posts within its regional sector. Whether the post office workers and other volunteers manning it would really have been able to calmly jot down the details of megatons and wind directions as Britain’s cities were incinerated around them remains unknowable.

Indeed, the (so far) mercifully hypothetical nature of atomic exchanges means that many matters are still unclear or shrouded in secrecy, particularly after thirty years in whi