On this October morning clouds float by my tower windows; they cast a cool shadow over the fiery swamp maples blazing in the valley by our murky brook. The shallow water flows in slow motion around spongy moss islands and hostile bushes of thorn waiting to snag any pilgrim brave enough to breach their lair. Dark green pines and old oaks stand guard high on the granite ledges that ring this hidden hollow. I made it through once in early spring before pungent skunk cabbage came to life to conceal the deadly black water snakes beneath their arching veils.
The tower, of course, is a fantasy, a metaphor for what it represents in the scheme of my life, that place of escape whose loss I would deem a cruel punishment; the actual space being a humble upper room, under the eaves, in a weather beaten house on a knoll, where I dream and write. The view of the hollow is real though. Except for the ticking of an old clock it’s quiet, although I hear the books whispering to each other from their shelves under the sloping ceilings, a hushed discussion group debating the merits, or demerits, of philosophy, religion, economics and politics, science, history and stories. There’s a bit of everything, roughly arranged according to Dewey, as if wisdom is merely a matter of logical organization of all we ever thought we knew from as far back into recorded history and the fossil record as we can trace. Stories, though, refuse to be pinned down by topic or title, their nature more akin to floating clouds, you never know if the title that attracts you will tell an uplifting or a humbling tale, one which sucks you down into muck or pierces you cruelly with thorns, tells truth or lies, each perhaps masquerading as the other. The best will breathe new life into the old, making us new puzzles.
Straightening up the house this morning, I picked up the copy of Philip Roth’s Everyman, tossed on a hassock in the living room last night while reading a review of his latest novel, The Humbling (I had read Everyman but not the new book and wondered if I might buy it). My mind was in flight somewhere over the world like the Google Earth satellite that once zoomed me right down to the Box Tunnel entrance in Wiltshire. It may seem irrelevant even to peek down this winding sidetrack, but book titles like these never fail to draw my attention - - - universal, resonant, oozing potential for exploring the eternal questions; rather like peering into Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s tunnel at dawn on his birthday to see if he had made it straight enough to watch the sunrise at the opposite end. I wondered whether the book critic had overlooked something in her analysis of the novel, but lacking credentials to qualify as a reviewer, I don’t presume to offer any official challenge to her insight, especially based only the excerpts she provided. After all, I am now seeing shadows of long deceased relatives in mirrors; few would consider my witness credible.
Once upstairs, I balked at re-shelving the book in the R’s near the floor and lifted the small metal sculpture I call nail man, who stood on a boxed set of Dickens’s novels on top of the bookcase; I slid the book between them. Sparks flew when Everyman hit Dickens and nail man came down on top. A barely audible chorus of whispered gasps went up, summoning a musing session of exquisite pleasure purchased for a dollar as calculated by the price of nail man.
I had bought the bent man sculpture in a yard sale last spring. He is cleverly created from five antique cut nails; his arms, legs and body are all bent in an unmistakable posture of anguish, reminiscent of Sisyphus pushing his stone up the hill. My eye had been drawn to him like a magnet, the nearly invisible figure squeezed between an old doll and a cracked flower pot. The cheery lady at the table said she was happy to see someone take an interest in the trophy her brother had been given at a roasting years ago for a memorable bogey shot on the golf course. Only then did I notice a hole bored into the plain wood base and a tiny white plaster ball beside it; nor had I recognized that the thin iron shaft, which the man was in the act of bending across his knee, was a golf club. He was that angry! We see what we’re primed to see. I almost put the figure down, hearing that he wasn’t the ideal of misery that fit my current state of mind. How shallow to embody such anguish in a man because he overshot par in a game of golf. I bought it anyway, thinking I’d remove the ball and snip the golf club. I never did it and of course now give myself credit for developing a deeper appreciation for the humor, even the genius expressed in nail man or golf man, tragic-comic man, everyman who can’t escape the humbling human condition.
The tick-tock of the office clock brings me back to England and the story from which I seem to digress. I wondered what had become of the old quarries under Box Hill. Had time stood still there, the abandoned stone works a faded memory? I discovered this to be far from the case; in fact the history of the Wiltshire quarries is a story more fantastical than Lewis Carroll’s nonsense tale of a girl who fell down a rabbit hole and into a well. I feel just like Alice as she fell and noticed that the sides “were filled with cupboards and book-shelves; here and there she saw maps and pictures hung upon pegs.”
On September 25, 1940, the Bristol Aeroplane factory in Filton, England, was hit by 57 Heinkel bombers, the German aircraft designed by the Gunter brothers in the early 1930s. Construction of the plane that was to become an icon of the enemy force in WWII, constituted a violation of the Treaty of Versailles due to its disguise as a transport aircraft. Bristol Aeroplane built the Centaurus and Pegasus aircraft engines. The attack prompted Winston Churchill’s conception of an ambitious plan to move the entire BAC factory operation underground into the quarries of Corsham, but the stunning projected cost to do so forced the scaled down production of only the Centaurus and Pegasus engines. The nation’s ammunition reserves had already been buried in some of the vast underground caverns.
In December that year, all the underground quarry workings that might be needed were requisitioned by the Government. All stone-cutting was halted immediately, with partially cut stone and tools left where they had been at the time of the order to stop work. The decision was made to use Spring Quarry, the largest of the Corsham quarries at the time, for the manufacturing operation; its northern boundary abutted the line of Brunel’s Box tunnel. Corsham became known as a “shadow” factory, housed in the caves.
In 1943, Olga Lehmann (1912-2001), who studied at the Slade School of Fine Art in London and acquired a reputation in the field of mural painting in the 1930s, designed and painted murals for the workers' canteen in the BAC’s Spring Quarry factory. Ms Lehmann tapped into circus and prehistoric monster themes as well as sports, mermaids and sailors of old. A rabbit holding a speared heart is said to be inspired by Alice in Wonderland, certainly a bit too gruesome an interpretation of the the wacky but mostly harmless Alice characters. I was brought up short, though, at the sight of a mural entitled “Bendy Man”, a circus performer bent in half with his head through outspread legs, tipping his top hat to an audience in a decidely comic fool’s pose. Stars surround him. How coincidental and strange; not a soul on earth would believe that I had no idea such a painting existed before nail-man found his way into this family odyssey.
Despite the incredible cost of building the BAC factory it operated for only eighteen months, closing in 1945. Following the shut down of the engine factory and development of a new use for the quarries, some, if not many of the murals are thought to have been destroyed.
1950 - 2005
Following the Second World War, the labyrinth of quarries in the hollow of Box Hill, and nearby, was turned into a refuge, a place to escape from the threat of Soviet nuclear attack. What would those who had emigrated more than a half century earlier, to get away from the tyranny of the stone mines, have thought of this post-war development?
Maurice Chittenden, writing for “The Sunday Times” in Britain on October 30, 2005, draws an intriguing sketch of the old quarries in the second half of the 20th century in these excerpts from his article, which I have pasted into the Knight family album:
WELCOME to Cold War City (population: 4). It covers 240 acres and has 60 miles of roads and its own railway station. It even includes a pub called the Rose and Crown.
The subterranean complex that was built in the 1950s to house the Conservative prime minister Harold Macmillan’s cabinet and 4,000 civil servants in the event of a Soviet nuclear attack is being thrown open to commercial use. Just four maintenance men are left.
Already two uses are being considered: a massive data store for City firms or the biggest wine cellar in Europe. More outlandish ideas put forward include a nightclub for rave parties, a 1950s theme park or a reception centre for asylum seekers. The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has ruled out any suggestion of using it to store nuclear waste or providing open public access because of the dangers that still lurk below.
The bunker is in a former mine near Corsham in Wiltshire where stone was once excavated to provide the fascias for the fine houses of Bath, about eight miles away.
During the war the mine was a munitions dump and a factory for military aircraft engines. It was equipped with what was then the second largest telephone exchange in Britain and a BBC studio from where the prime minister could make broadcasts to what remained of the nation. The telephone directories were last updated in 1989, the year the Berlin Wall came down.
A system of underground power stations would have provided electricity to the 100,000 lamps that lit its streets and guided the way to a pub modelled on the Red Lion in Whitehall.
A spur line was built inside a tunnel on the main London to Bristol railway, linking it to the bunker. It was meant as an escape route for the royal family to flee London in the event of an attack.
Code-named Burlington, it was never used and as the timescale for a perceived Soviet nuclear onslaught shrank to the notorious four-minute warning of armageddon, the whole concept of evacuating the Queen and her government became obsolete.
The bunker’s very existence was meant to be top secret until it was decommissioned last year. The last cabinet records were removed a decade ago.
A visit there today involves walking into an opening in a hillside and taking a lift down to the bunker. The only sentry is a garden gnome outside one of the entrances. Inside, it is like stepping back 50 years.
Hundreds of swivel chairs delivered in 1959 are still unpacked. There are boxes of government-issue glass ashtrays, lavatory brushes and civil service tea sets.
Pictures of the Queen, Princess Margaret and Grace Kelly are pinned to the walls. The canteen has murals of British sporting scenes painted by Olga Lehmann who went on to design costumes for films such as The Guns of Navarone and Kidnapped.
Michael Lainas, managing director of Octavian, which stores 800,000 cases of wine in another former stone quarry — three miles from the bunker — which the company bought from the MoD, said: “It’s a nice idea going from a red scare to red wine. Our most valuable deposit is a 1666 bottle of sherry valued at £36,000 that once belonged to the tsar of Russia. But even I am not allowed down there with a corkscrew.”
I have never written “poetry” but I’m feeling dizzy again - - - neither my thoughts nor my words will hold still long enough to capture the kaleidoscope truth of the stone quarries’ story over the past hundred years, whirling through history, as weightless as feathers or clouds:
Hurly – Burly Burlington
The cathedral was hollowed to hide from the Beast?
I thought he lived there and served as its priest.
Now bombs are too swift, no time to take cover,
to stow away Queen and her knaves or the other.
Let’s sell all the caves to the makers of wine,
since the guests who were coming have had to decline.
A Russian tsar’s sherry might go to the pits.
Cherished since one thousand six sixty six,
it will flee to this safe house, old tunnel of fears;
what shall we think after so many years?
We could grab a corkscrew and sneak an attack,
Pretend it says DRINK ME and never look back.
‘Wake up, Alice Dear!’ said her sister. Why, what a long sleep you’ve had!’
‘Oh, I’ve had such a curious dream!’ Said Alice - - -