Cold War nuclear bomb store at risk, says English Heritage

Atomic bomb store Credit: ITV Anglia

Hidden off a country road is a site which was once one of the most secret places in Britain.

At the height of the Cold War roughly half of the country's arsenal of atomic bombs were stored on the anonymous nine hectare (27 acre) Ministry of Defence base on Thetford Heath in Barnham, Suffolk.

But when Keith Eldred, now 77, bought the site for £20,000 in 1966 with the aim of growing mushrooms, little did he know he was taking on a project which would last a lifetime.

"I had been working as a surveyor in Hong Kong. When I came home I wanted to do something completely different," he said.

"On a whim I put in a bid for the site. When I told my wife I had bought a Cold War nuclear base, she nearly passed out.

"I managed to make a living out of selling mushrooms for a few years, but now most of my time is spent preserving and restoring a piece of history."

The site was decommissioned three years earlier.

At the peak of its use, as many as 57 nuclear warheads were housed there, ready to be mounted on 24ft-long Blue Danube bombs. Some 200 personnel, ranging from scientists to military guards, were based at the isolated spot. Security was tight with six watchtowers manned 24-hours a day.

Locals had no idea of its true purpose. They would have been oblivious when the base was put on standby during the Cuban missile crisis because a rumour was spread that the base was being used to train military chimpanzees.

Mr Eldred makes a living by letting the former military buildings as industrial units.

Many of the firms based there are involved in restoring the site: the company which sandblasts rust from the metal watchtowers operates from just outside the barbed-wire perimeter fence.

They work among the military paraphernalia: a winch once used for lifting bombs is now used for unloading delivery trucks.

Legal files are stored where the bombs were kept. Mr Eldred's own office was once situated in a blast-proof testing facility.

Nuclear base Credit: ITV Anglia

Over the last 10 years Mr Eldred, originally from London, has worked with English Heritage to bring the site back to its former glory. While work to restore listed elements of the site is largely funded by English Heritage, he has ploughed hundreds of thousands of pounds of his own money into the project.

The base includes Grade II* listed structures and is on the Heritage at Risk list, but the region's inspector of monuments, John Ette, believes it could be restored within two years.

"When you first walk on to a site like this it is a real headache. Places like this were never meant to last. But this is a really good example of how we can work with landowners and help them," he said.

"Keith has gone far beyond what he is required to do and it has become a passion for him."

Mr Eldred's sons have already expressed an interest in taking the base on in future years and his 18-year-old grand-daughter has said she will take charge after them.

Mr Eldred said: "I did my military service as a mechanic at RAF Lineham during the 1950s. I remember planes ridden with bullet holes returning from Suez.

"So I take great pride in restoring a place which played such an important role in British military history."