Hidden Labyrinth: England's Drakelow Tunnels

Alex Lomas, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Alex Lomas, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

It was inevitable that tragedy would strike. On October 31, 1941, three men blasting through the sandstone in Kingsford Country Park in Worcestershire, England, were caught as large chunks of rock rained over them. The explosions had caused portions of the roof to collapse over their heads. By the time rescuers cleared the scene, it was too late. All three were dead.

The dirty and dangerous work of excavating well over a million cubic feet near Birmingham, England, took eight grueling months, and four more people would lose their lives. But nothing slowed their progress. The site had been earmarked as a place to house an airplane engine factory—one so well-disguised that it would be impossible for the German Luftwaffe flying overhead to identify it. Known as the Drakelow Underground Dispersal Factory, it brimmed with activity for years before taking on a series of increasingly peculiar uses. With over 3.5 miles of tunnel winding through the rock, it’s become a relic of wartime security—and for some, a place where the ghosts of the laborers who perished sometimes return to make their presence known.

 

In 1937 and with the support of the Air Ministry, the Rover car company of Great Britain began opening “shadow” factories that supplied the Bristol airplane manufacturing plants with parts for their Hercules and Pegasus engines. (The label came from the idea they operated in the shadow of the more accomplished and specialized airplane factories.) When one of the plants was bombed in Coventry in November 1940, it became clear that an additional, covert location would be needed in order to supply parts and take over production in case one of the other plants was compromised by a German assault. The British government selected Kingsford Country Park, an attractive woodland which featured a mass of sandstone that could potentially endure a blast from above.

Work began in July 1941. The government had selected the respected engineering firm of Sir Alexander Gibb and Partners to plot the underground tunnel system, which ran in a grid pattern to offer structural support in case of an attack. The four main tunnels were to measure 16 feet wide and feed several ancillary chambers that made up an area around 0.6 miles wide and 0.6 miles long.

An entrance to the Drakelow Tunnels is surrounded by trees
Alex Lomas, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

To accomplish that, workers would have to penetrate the sandstone. They used gelignite, an explosive preferred for blasting through rock, to create the entrances; after that, other explosives were used to continue boring into the site.

The work was precarious, as evidenced by the three deaths just a few months into the project. Other times, it seemed as though the chaos of the worksite lent itself to some unfortunate luck. Conveyor belts were installed to move the displaced earth. When two workers felt compelled to ride the belt rather than walk out of the tunnel after a long day, they were unable to jump off and wound up being mangled by the machinery. A woman, Mary Ann Brettel, was run over by a dump truck. Eric Harold Newman, a security officer in charge of overseeing supplies, was also hit by a motor vehicle.

The workers probably breathed a sigh of relief when work finished in 1942. From there, Rover moved in hundreds of employees to work on the airplane engine parts. It was a full, bustling factory encased in rock, with no natural light available and air supplied through ventilation systems. To help offset discomfort during long shifts, Rover offered a series of amenities to workers. They installed a games room and a billiards table for recreation; they designated one area as a concert hall, where entertainers would perform; a bar was set up so they could unwind after their shift was over. Eventually, they used the loudspeaker system to pipe in music that helped diminish the clinical sound of machinery.

The end of the war in September 1945 brought a halt to production, which restarted only intermittently for tank engines and other projects over the next several years. It was clear the effort of constructing and maintaining the tunnels should result in their continued occupation, but how best to make use of the space was open to debate. What can you do with a bomb-resistant shelter when no bombs are around?

Initially, it was turned over to the Ministry of Works in 1958 and used as a storage facility. With the advent of the Cold War, an obscured tunnel network became attractive as a location of last resort in the event of a nuclear attack, and a portion of Drakelow was converted to a Regional Seat of Government in 1961. In the 1980s, it was partially refurbished to include dorms and other additions to support a small government staff in case of a cataclysmic event.

A clock hangs inside the Drakelow Tunnels
Alex Lomas, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

By the time tensions eased in the 1990s, the British government saw no need to continue tending to the tunnels. The site was decommissioned and sold to private owners in 1993, who initially planned on using the land as a residential and commercial property and sought to demolish the network of tunnels. Lobbying by the newly formed Drakelow Tunnels Preservation Trust helped bury those plans. The trust believed the tunnels were of historical significance, having been utilized during a war and remaining ready in the event of an unthinkable nuclear disaster. And so the chambers remained standing, though perhaps not totally empty.

 

In 1993, a caretaker walking the grounds of Drakelow claimed he heard a slow and melodious song reminiscent of the 1940s. He searched everywhere for a possible source of the music but found nothing. The only thing capable of producing sound was the loudspeaker system, which hadn’t worked in years.

In 1996, another watchman accompanied by guard dogs alleged his canine companions began barking without provocation. Before long, a mist began to rise in the tunnel. The man searched for a possible fire in and out of the area. When he attempted to go back in, his dogs whined and dug their feet in. They didn’t want to return.

Such stories have been enticing for paranormal enthusiasts, who take guided tours of the tunnels provided by the trust. The area has also been the site of training for the military and law enforcement as well as some filming for movies and television. The trust is still hoping to raise funds for further restoration work, but thus far it’s been little more than painting.

Tourists at Drakelow today might see computers, radios, and other amenities put in during the Cold War scare of the 1980s. They may experience sudden drops in temperature or strange noises. If they think they smell something odd, however, it might not be their imagination. In 2016, a caretaker was convicted of allowing dealers to grow marijuana in some of the tunnels.

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6 Amazing Facts About Sally Ride

U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

You know Sally Ride as the first American woman to travel into space. But here are six things you might not know about the groundbreaking astronaut, who was born on May 26, 1951.

1. Sally Ride proved there is such thing as a stupid question.

When Sally Ride made her first space flight in 1983, she was both the first American woman and the youngest American to make the journey to the final frontier. Both of those distinctions show just how qualified and devoted Ride was to her career, but they also opened her up to a slew of absurd questions from the media.

Journalist Michael Ryan recounted some of the sillier questions that had been posed to Ride in a June 1983 profile for People. Among the highlights:

Q: “Will the flight affect your reproductive organs?”
A: “There’s no evidence of that.”

Q: “Do you weep when things go wrong on the job?”
A: “How come nobody ever asks (a male fellow astronaut) those questions?"

Forget going into space; Ride’s most impressive achievement might have been maintaining her composure in the face of such offensive questions.

2. Had she taken Billie Jean King's advice, Sally Ride might have been a professional tennis player.

When Ride was growing up near Los Angeles, she played more than a little tennis, and she was seriously good at it. She was a nationally ranked juniors player, and by the time she turned 18 in 1969, she was ranked 18th in the whole country. Tennis legend Billie Jean King personally encouraged Ride to turn pro, but she went to Swarthmore instead before eventually transferring to Stanford to finish her undergrad work, a master’s, and a PhD in physics.

King didn’t forget about the young tennis prodigy she had encouraged, though. In 1984 an interviewer playfully asked the tennis star who she’d take to the moon with her, to which King replied, “Tom Selleck, my family, and Sally Ride to get us all back.”

3. Home economics was not Sally Ride's best subject.

After retiring from space flight, Ride became a vocal advocate for math and science education, particularly for girls. In 2001 she founded Sally Ride Science, a San Diego-based company that creates fun and interesting opportunities for elementary and middle school students to learn about math and science.

Though Ride was an iconic female scientist who earned her doctorate in physics, just like so many other youngsters, she did hit some academic road bumps when she was growing up. In a 2006 interview with USA Today, Ride revealed her weakest subject in school: a seventh-grade home economics class that all girls had to take. As Ride put it, "Can you imagine having to cook and eat tuna casserole at 8 a.m.?"

4. Sally Ride had a strong tie to the Challenger.

Ride’s two space flights were aboard the doomed shuttle Challenger, and she was eight months deep into her training program for a third flight aboard the shuttle when it tragically exploded in 1986. Ride learned of that disaster at the worst possible time: she was on a plane when the pilot announced the news.

Ride later told AARP the Magazine that when she heard the midflight announcement, she got out her NASA badge and went to the cockpit so she could listen to radio reports about the fallen shuttle. The disaster meant that Ride wouldn’t make it back into space, but the personal toll was tough to swallow, too. Four of the lost members of Challenger’s crew had been in Ride’s astronaut training class.

5. Sally Ride had no interest in cashing in on her worldwide fame.

A 2003 profile in The New York Times called Ride one of the most famous women on Earth after her two space flights, and it was hard to argue with that statement. Ride could easily have cashed in on the slew of endorsements, movie deals, and ghostwritten book offers that came her way, but she passed on most opportunities to turn a quick buck.

Ride later made a few forays into publishing and endorsements, though. She wrote or co-wrote more than a half-dozen children’s books on scientific themes, including To Space and Back, and in 2009 she appeared in a print ad for Louis Vuitton. Even appearing in an ad wasn’t an effort to pad her bank account, though; the ad featured an Annie Leibovitz photo of Ride with fellow astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Jim Lovell gazing at the moon and stars. According to a spokesperson, all three astronauts donated a “significant portion” of their modeling fees to Al Gore’s Climate Project.

6. Sally Ride was the first openly LGBTQ astronaut.

Ride passed away on July 23, 2012, at the age of 61, following a long (and very private) battle with pancreatic cancer. While Ride's brief marriage to fellow astronaut Steve Hawley was widely known to the public (they were married from 1982 to 1987), it wasn't until her death that Ride's longtime relationship with Tam O'Shaughnessy—a childhood friend and science writer—was made public. Which meant that even in death, Ride was still changing the world, as she is the world's first openly LGBTQ astronaut.