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.

7 Top-Rated Portable Air Conditioners You Can Buy Right Now

Black + Decker/Amazon
Black + Decker/Amazon

The warmest months of the year are just around the corner (in the Northern Hemisphere, anyway), and things are about to get hot. To make indoor life feel a little more bearable, we’ve rounded up a list of some of the top-rated portable air conditioners you can buy online right now.

1. SereneLife 3-in-1 Portable Air Conditioner; $290

SereneLife air conditioner on Amazon.
SereneLife/Amazon

This device—currently the best-selling portable air conditioner on Amazon—is multifunctional, cooling the air while also working as a dehumidifier. Reviewers on Amazon praised this model for how easy it is to set up, but cautioned that it's not meant for large spaces. According to the manufacturer, it's designed to cool down rooms up to 225 square feet, and the most positive reviews came from people using it in their bedroom.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Black + Decker 14,000 BTU Portable Air Conditioner and Heater; $417

Black + Decker portable air conditioner
Black+Decker/Amazon

Black + Decker estimates that this combination portable air conditioner and heater can accommodate rooms up to 350 square feet, and it even comes with a convenient timer so you never have to worry about forgetting to turn it off before you leave the house. The setup is easy—the attached exhaust hose fits into most standard windows, and everything you need for installation is included. This model sits around four stars on Amazon, and it was also picked by Wirecutter as one of the best values on the market.

Buy it: Amazon

3. Mikikin Portable Air Conditioner Fan; $45

Desk air conditioner on Amazon
Mikikin/Amazon

This miniature portable conditioner, which is Amazon's top-selling new portable air conditioner release, is perfect to put on a desk or end table as you work or watch TV during those sweltering dog days. It's currently at a four-star rating on Amazon, and reviewers recommend filling the water tank with a combination of cool water and ice cubes for the best experience.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Juscool Portable Air Conditioner Fan; $56

Juscool portable air conditioner.
Juscool/Amazon

This tiny air conditioner fan, which touts a 4.6-star rating, is unique because it plugs in with a USB cable, so you can hook it up to a laptop or a wall outlet converter to try out any of its three fan speeds. This won't chill a living room, but it does fit on a nightstand or desk to help cool you down in stuffy rooms or makeshift home offices that weren't designed with summer in mind.

Buy it: Amazon

5. SHINCO 8000 BTU Portable Air Conditioner; $320

Shinco portable air conditioner
SHINCO/Amazon

This four-star-rated portable air conditioner is meant for rooms of up to 200 square feet, so think of it for a home office or bedroom. It has two fan speeds, and the included air filter can be rinsed out quickly underneath a faucet. There's also a remote control that lets you adjust the temperature from across the room. This is another one where you'll need a window nearby, but the installation kit and instructions are all included so you won't have to sweat too much over setting it up.

Buy it: Amazon

6. Honeywell MN Series Portable Air Conditioner and Dehumidifier; $400

Honeywell air conditioner on Walmart.
Honeywell/Walmart

Like the other units on this list, Honeywell's portable air conditioner also acts as a dehumidifier or a standard fan when you just want some air to circulate. You can cool a 350-square-foot room with this four-star model, and there are four wheels at the bottom that make moving it from place to place even easier. This one is available on Amazon, too, but Walmart has the lowest price right now.

Buy it: Walmart

7. LG 14,000 BTU Portable Air Conditioner; $699

LG Portable Air Conditioner.
LG/Home Depot

This one won't come cheap, but it packs the acclaim to back it up. It topped Wirecutter's list of best portable air conditioners and currently has a 4.5-star rating on Home Depot's website, with many of the reviews praising how quiet it is while it's running. It's one of the only models you'll find compatible with Alexa and Google Assistant, and it can cool rooms up to 500 square feet. There's also the built-in timer, so you can program it to go on and off whenever you want.

Buy it: Home Depot

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The Maestro: 10 Facts About Ennio Morricone

Peter Tea via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Peter Tea via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Famed composer Ennio Morricone died on July 6, 2020 at the age of 91, leaving behind a body of work that eclipses the idea of “productivity” itself. It’s not just that Morricone composed thousands of hours of music for hundreds of movies. It’s that he managed to create so many original, indelible moments over and over again, in such a broad variety of genres for so long, without acquiescing to repetition or compromising his creativity. The last, best comfort to take in his absence is the thrilling—and rather intimidating—volume of music he left for us to revisit and, more likely, discover while celebrating his legacy in the days, weeks, months, and years ahead.

In spite of his seemingly constant presence in the film industry for more than 70 years, there are many details about Morricone's life and career that even longtime fans may not know. In honoring the man and the artist, we’ve collected a handful of facts and figures about the Oscar-winning composer and his vast, incredible, and unforgettable body of work.

1. Ennio Morricone made music for 85 of his 91 years.

Ennio Morricone was encouraged to develop his natural musical abilities at a young age—he created his first compositions at age 6. He was taught music by his father and learned several instruments, but gravitated toward the trumpet. When he was just 12 years old, Morricone enrolled in a four-year program at the prestigious National Academy of St. Cecilia in Rome, where he was born, and completed his studies within six months.

2. Ennio Morricone's career primarily focused on film, television, and radio compositions, but he also worked in popular music.

Morricone’s professional career began in 1950 as an arranger for jazz and pop artists. He helped compose hits for a diverse slate of stars including Nora Orlandi, Mina, Françoise Hardy, Mireille Mathieu, and Paul Anka, whose song “Ogni Volta” (“Every Time”) sold more than 3 million copies worldwide.

Morricone later worked with Pet Shop Boys, k.d. lang, Andrea Bocelli, and Sting. From 1964 to 1980, he was also part of Gruppo di Improvvisazione Consonanza (or “The Group”), an ensemble focused on avant-garde improvisations. Although it was reissued a few years ago, original copies of their 1970 album The Feed-back once fetched as much as $1000 on the collector’s market.

3. Ennio Morricone hit the ground running as a composer—and never slowed down.

Many of Morricone’s first efforts in the movies were as an orchestrator for more established composers, but he quickly joined their ranks. Between 1955 and 1964, when he created his breakthrough score for A Fistful of Dollars, he either orchestrated or composed (or both in some cases) some 28 film scores. During this time, he was already working with Michelangelo Antonioni (L’Avventura), Vittorio De Sica (The Last Judgment), Lucio Fulci (twice!), Lina Wertmüller (I basilischi), and Bernardo Bertolucci (Before the Revolution).

4. Ennio Morricone helped turn A Fistful of Dollars into a worldwide classic.

When Sergio Leone hired Morricone for his first Western, he’d already embarked on an iconoclastic journey, referencing Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. Leone’s initial “concession” was to evoke Dimitri Tiomkin’s score for Howard Hawks’s Rio Bravo in its music. Morricone combined ideas from Tiomkin’s music with an arrangement of folk singer Peter Tevis’s cover of the Woody Guthrie song “Pastures of Plenty” to create what became the opening title theme. The music won the Silver Ribbon Award for Best Score from the Italian National Syndicate of Film Journalists and forged a longtime partnership between Morricone and Leone.

5. During their heyday, Sergio Leone and Ennio Morricone worked in a way that was virtually unprecedented outside of musicals.

The music in Leone’s films is at once one of their most distinctive features, and also one of their most inextricable. Later in his career, Morricone explained that he would often compose portions of the music for Leone’s films before shooting began, and then scenes were staged and shot to match the timing and rhythm of the composer’s music. “That’s why the films are so slow,” Morricone joked in 2007. His use of so many then-unconventional instruments, including electric guitars, the mouth harp, and sound effects like gunshots redefined the musical landscape of the genre, while Leone razed its traditional morality tales to explore darker, more complex stories.

6. A Fistful Of Dollars spawned a lifetime of awards.

Morricone won his only competitive Oscar just four years ago, and had previously received an honorary Oscar in 2007. But after that recognition from the Italian National Syndicate of Journalists, he racked up hundreds of nominations and awards from the Motion Picture Academy (five other nominations), the American Film Institute (four), the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (six nominations, three wins), the Grammys (five nominations and four awards including their Grammy Hall of Fame and Trustees Award), and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association (a Career Achievement award and a win for his score for Once Upon a Time in America). Somewhat predictably, much of the work he did in “genre” films, even the acclaimed “Spaghetti Westerns,” was marginalized at the time, but went on to be appropriately recognized and reevaluated for its impact and artistry.

7. Ennio Morricone was both a critical and a commercial success.

Morricone's work with Leone raised his profile as a formidable collaborator for filmmakers and gave him worldwide chart success. His score for The Good, The Bad and The Ugly sold more than 2 million copies, and the soundtrack to Once Upon A Time In The West, his fourth collaboration with Leone, sold approximately 10 million copies worldwide. It remains one of the top five best-selling instrumental scores in the world today. To date, Morricone has sold more than 70 million records worldwide.

8. Ennio Morricone’s partnership with Sergio Leone was exemplary, but he wasn’t the composer’s only frequent collaborator.

From A Fistful of Dollars to Once Upon a Time in America, Leone’s final film, he and Morricone always worked together. While working primarily in Italy, he often teamed up with Sergio Corbucci and Sergio Sollima, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Bernardo Bertolucci, and Dario Argento, among others. After being courted by Hollywood, Morricone began developing long-term partnerships with American and international filmmakers like Brian De Palma, Warren Beatty, Samuel Fuller, and Roland Joffe. By the late 1970s, he was working with John Boorman and Terrence Malick, and by the 1980s and ‘90s, he was regularly collaborating with John Carpenter, Barry Levinson, George Miller, and Pedro Almodóvar.

Beginning in 1988, Morricone began working with Giuseppe Tornatore on the Oscar-winning Italian film Cinema Paradiso, and subsequently worked on all of Tornatore's other films, including 2016’s The Correspondence and the director's commercials for Dolce & Gabbana.

9. Quentin Tarantino championed Ennio Morricone’s work even before the two of them ever worked together.

Quentin Tarantino’s films are always an exciting pastiche of past and present influences, and he has used cues from Morricone scores in many of his films, beginning with Kill Bill: Volume 1 and 2. Tarantino first hoped to work with the composer on Inglorious Basterds, but when the timing couldn’t be worked out, the filmmaker utilized eight older tracks by Morricone on the soundtrack.

Morricone composed the song “Ancora Qui” for Django Unchained, but it wasn’t until The Hateful Eight that he composed a full score for Tarantino, who still used archival tracks—namely, some unreleased cues from his score for John Carpenter’s The Thing—to expand the film’s musical backdrop. In 2016, Morricone won his first competitive Oscar for his work on Tarantino's film after being nominated six times over the course of nearly 40 years. Morricone also earned an Honorary Oscar in 2007 "For his magnificent and multifaceted contributions to the art of film music."

10. Morricone’s discography remains an embarrassment of riches—at least, whatever’s left of it.

Though the extent of the loss hasn’t been reported, Morricone’s was among the work reportedly destroyed in the 2008 fire on the Universal backlot where the company’s Music Group stored original recording and master tapes from some of the world’s best-selling artists. But Morricone recorded more than 400 film scores throughout his career and more than 100 classical pieces, not counting the thousands of pieces licensed for use. More and more of them have been restored and re-released digitally, on CD and vinyl. Meanwhile, his work continues to elicit as strong reactions from moviegoers as the images they were originally written to accompany.

Yo-Yo Ma released an album of performances of Morricone pieces in 2004 that sold more than 130,000 copies. His work tested and redefined the boundaries of film composition, what instruments could be used, and how music and imagery could work together to tell stories and generate powerful feelings. And each listen of those recordings, whether of transgressive experimentation, pointed drama, or lush sentimentality, honors Morricone's enormous talent and evokes his irreplaceable spirit.