Barnton Quarry Command Control Centre, February 2005

Written by  on February 1, 2005 

My first experience of urban exploration, before I’d even heard the term. I’m writing this for the first time in December 2013, nearly 9 years later, so I may be hazy on the details. Mainly I just want to try and communicate the sense of adventure and excitement we felt that day, and why I always felt hungry for more.

I’d always known there was an abandoned cold war bunker in the woods on Corstorphine Hill; a lot of people from my school had been down there and talked about it. I didn’t know exactly where the entrance was, but I suspected it was somewhere in the cluster of dilapidated looking buildings in the old quarry. I’d never looked very closely at it… although I found the idea of a derelict underground bunker strangely fascinating, the buildings were fenced off with “No Trespassing” signs and I hadn’t dared to go near them.

But I must have been feeling adventurous that afternoon. My brother and I were walking our auntie’s dog on the hill and as we passed the old buildings, I spotted a hole in the fence round the side. There didn’t seem to be anyone around, so I decided to sneak in and have a look round, not really expecting to find anything interesting – I assumed that the bunker itself would be well sealed up and the surface buildings were probably just empty shells like the ones I’d been in on Cramond Island.

As I got to the closest building and ducked in through the open doorway, I was stunned by what I saw… ahead of me, a wide tunnel sloped downwards into the blackness! There was no mistaking it… it had to be the bunker entrance and it was wide open. It looked very similar to the entrance tunnel for the “secret bunker” in Fife that I’d visited a few years earlier. I felt thrilled by the possibility of exploring this one, but I also knew it would be a very bad idea to go down there on my own, and in any case I didn’t even have a torch with me so I wouldn’t be able to see a thing. Reluctantly I went back to my waiting brother and told him what I’d found. He was excited as well, and we decided to come back with torches when we got the chance.

The following weekend, my brother and I headed for the woods again, a bit more prepared this time. We each had a torch, and we also had a friend with us to join in the excitement. After getting a little muddy scrambling through the hole in the fence, we realised there was no need as the gate to the compound was wide open today! It hadn’t been open the previous weekend, so someone must have been here since… were they still here now? And would we still be able to get into the bunker or would they have closed it up? Thankfully it was still open. Exchanging excited glances we switched on our torches and began our descent.

The entrance tunnel seemed to go on forever and our torches turned out not to be much good once we actually got underground. After a few minutes we stopped. My torch had picked out something white up ahead of us, just on the edge of what we could see. Maybe it was just the darkness playing tricks on our eyes, but it appeared to be moving. It was too indistinct at this distance to tell what it was… if pressed I would have said it looked more like a goat than anything, though that didn’t seem very likely. Getting more and more uneasy by this point, we decided to turn back. Even if we didn’t really believe in spectral goats, the open gate had disturbed us slightly… there could well be people down there who wouldn’t appreciate us walking in on whatever they were doing.

I was disappointed that we hadn’t got further and even by the time we got back to the car I was starting to wish we hadn’t chickened out so quickly. Apparently our friend felt the same way, because the following day he turned up at our house with a much bigger torch he’d borrowed from his dad! So off we went again, back to the hill. The compound gate was still open; that made me a bit happier. Maybe someone just forgot to close it when they left and the gate being open didn’t mean they weren’t necessarily still inside.

Everything looked just as it had the previous afternoon and soon we were on our way back down the tunnel, seeing much more clearly today thanks to the bigger torch. Presently, the white thing came into view up ahead and we strained our eyes to try and see what it was. As we pressed on, it started to look less like a goat and less like it was moving, which was a relief. Eventually we got close enough to see that it was just some item of rubbish that had been left there (I don’t recall exactly what). There was also a barrel that might have once contained oil.

Just beyond the “goat”, the tunnel turned a corner and its profile changed from square concrete to circular metallic. There was an abandoned vehicle here that we had to squeeze around the side of… and beyond that was the door into the bunker itself!

We stared in amazement at the labyrinth of passages, staircases and rooms that lay before us. This was many years after the bunker had been badly damaged by fire and so everything was very blackened and burnt out, but still fascinating to see. We had a quick look round but didn’t stray far from the entrance tunnel, conscious of how unsafe the building looked and how much trouble we would be in if one of us had a fall or if both our torches were to fail. After a few minutes we decided to quit while we were ahead and return to the surface. I got some strange looks as I tried to stroll nonchalantly back to the car, but when I looked in the rear view mirror I understood why… my face was completely black with dirt and soot! I must have rubbed it after touching the walls or something.

My first “urban explore” was certainly exciting at the time, but looking back now I have a few regrets about it. Firstly, none of us took a camera down there, so I didn’t get any pictures of the place until years later. Though back in 2005 affordable cameras that could take decent pictures in very dark conditions were a bit harder to come by than they are today anyway. Secondly, we didn’t research the place at all before going in there. If we had, we would have had some clue what we were actually looking at once we got down there as opposed to just gazing in wonder and thinking “Whoa, that’s cool!”. Since then I always research sites before I explore them, both because knowing more about them enhances the experience, and for safety.

For a while, the bunker was rumoured to be severely contaminated by asbestos following the fire damage, and there was speculation that it would remain abandoned forever. However, this turned out not to be the case – the building insulation was found to be made of cork and fibreglass, not asbestos. The site is now being redeveloped with the intention to turn it into a museum, similar to the one in Fife, so in future people will hopefully be able to visit it without the risk of falling through the floor. In summer 2014, I returned to the bunker as a volunteer and helped to clear debris out of the plant room and the top level. It was good to see the place again as well as contribute in a small way towards its preservation. I also took several photos, which you can find on my flickr account.

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