This browser is not fully supported by Historic England. Please update your browser to the latest version so that you get the best from our website.

The Cold War

This section provides an introduction to the heritage of the Cold War. It illustrates some of the Cold War sites that we have photographed and provides you with links to detailed site surveys.

The Cold War is the name given to the 40-year long stand-off between the Superpowers - the United States and the Soviet Union - which defined the world's political map for most of the second half of the 20th century.

More than any previous conflict, the Cold War was wrapped in secrecy and deception. Throughout the period, structures were regularly abandoned as the technology on which they relied became rapidly redundant. As a result, the architectural legacy of this very recent episode in our history is in some cases as poorly understood as any prehistoric monument.

We have been at the forefront of the investigation the remains of the Cold War. Photographic, drawn and written records have been made of a large range of sites, including small monitoring posts, command bunkers, radar sites, research and development sites, communication facilities, and airfields and test ranges covering many hundreds of hectares.

Alt txt - Atomic Weapons Establishment, Foulness, Essex, a heavily protected observation post designed to protect personnel and equipment during explosive tests.
Atomic Weapons Establishment, Foulness, Essex, a heavily protected observation post designed to protect personnel and equipment during explosive tests. © Historic England DP 035947 Steve Cole

High Tech Research

One distinctive feature of British defence policy during the 1950s was a heavy commitment to an independent capacity to remain at the head of all areas of military technology, including nuclear weapons, guided missiles, defence electronics and aeronautics.

Many of the facilities were world-class research centres; for example, the wind tunnels at the Royal Aircraft Establishment Bedford, which was used to test most British military aircraft designed and built after the Second World War. At Spadeadam, Cumbria, an extensive range was built to test the Blue Streak missile; remains of equivalent facilities for live launches survive in the Australian outback.

We have carried out detailed surveys of former nuclear weapons development and test sites at Foulness, Essex, Fort Halstead, Kent and Orford Ness, Suffolk. We have also surveyed the rocket test site at The Needles Isle of Wight.

Protection for Cold War sites

Through our work we have defined buildings and installations that characterise the Cold War era in England, and what it is important to protect for future generations. Many of the names of these formerly secret installations will be unfamiliar, while the 1980s cruise missiles shelters at Greenham Common, West Berkshire, were commonly featured in news reports. It was a site central to NATO deterrent policy and also came to international attention as the centre of protests against nuclear weapons.

The key sites have been protected, a selection of which are illustrated in the gallery below, further research is needed especially into emergency civil government and its supporting facilities.

We have reassessed the Hardened Aircraft Shelters at RAF Upper Heyford as new evidence has come to light with the release of Cold War files.

RAF Barnham, Suffolk, air photograph of the pentagon-shaped former store for Britain first atomic bomb Blue Danube, scheduled.
RAF Barnham, Suffolk, former store for Britain first atomic bomb Blue Danube, scheduled. © Historic England 15881/12

Cold War Image Gallery

Here you can see some of the images of Cold War sites investigated in our previous research. Please click on the gallery images to enlarge.

  • Atomic Weapons Establishment, Foulness, Essex, building X6, in this structure in summer 1952 the United Kingdom’s first atomic bomb was assembled, scheduled.
  • Atomic Weapons Research Establishment, Orford Ness, Suffolk, two 1960s test structures, known as the Pagodas, in the event of an explosion their roofs were designed to smoother the explosion, scheduled.
  • Atomic Weapons Research Establishment, Orford Ness, Suffolk, interior of one the Pagodas showing the wall steel slots on which test equipment was mounted, scheduled.
  • Rocket Establishment Spadeadam, Cumbria, an air photograph of Greymare Hill site of two stands for test firing the 90 ton Blue Streak missile, scheduled.
  • Rocket Establishment Spadeadam, Cumbria, Greymare Hill test stand C3, during firing the missile was placed on top of the stand, scheduled.
  • RAF Harrington, Northamptonshire, site of alter 1950s Thor intermediate range ballistic missile site, Listed grade II.
  • RAF Coltishall, Norfolk, early 1950s concrete blast walls designed to protect jet interceptor aircraft from low level attack, scheduled.
  • RAF Neatishead, Norfolk, this powerful Type 84 radar mounted on steel gantry was built to detect a possible attack by Soviet bombers, scheduled.
  • RAF Neatishead, Norfolk, the 1970s radar control room preserved as it was left in the 1990s with its original consoles and plotting board, Listed Grade 2*
  • Cambridge, Regional Seat of Government, in the early 1960s a heavily protected emergency bunker was built to accommodate around 400 people, listed Grade 2.
  • RAF Upper Heyford, Oxfordshire, the pre-war airfield was heavily modified during the Cold War for United States Air Force jets, Conservation Area.
  • RAF Greenham Common, Berkshire, an air photograph showing the six bunkers with Ground Launched Cruise Missile Alert and Maintenance Area (GAMA) that was built in the mid-1980s to house US Ground Launched Cruise Missiles, scheduled.

Further information on Cold War research

You may read more about our research into the Cold War in our book Cold War: Building for Nuclear Confrontation 1946-1989 and its international legacy in A Fearsome Heritage .

More images of sites we have recorded are available online.

Was this page helpful?