Location Scouting for Bunkers

24 Jan

In the last few days I’ve had a bit of a locations ‘mare, in that I’ve got action happening in a government establishment that’s strictly off limits to the public.  Unless you’re a really well known author with connections, how do you write about such a place without ever having been there?

Grrr! Communications, Soho Square

My locations scouting for the Ferret Files to date has consisted of Google Earth, Google Maps, public transport and my legs.  I’ve set the majority of the action in London, with some of the defence industry shenanigans taking place in Bath.  Having worked in London on and off for most of the last 20 years, I know the place really well, above and below ground.   I had a mental list of places I wanted to use, well before I began the project, some of which are well known, others not so.  I have a keen interest in architecture and that includes burrowing, as in the creation of underground tunnels and complexes.  If there’s a London tour which takes in tunnels, chances are I’ve been on it.  My fundamental belief is that it’s not possible to get the vibe of a location if you haven’t been there.  And by been there, I mean recently.  If you don’t experience the vibe firsthand and lock it in, chances are your readers will notice, especially if they follow your characters around.


A Boris Bike Yesterday

I live in Bath and have done for 12 years.  I’m just nutty enough to commute to London on a daily basis, which is OK for a short period, provided the end destination is near to Paddington.  Last year, I spent 8 months in the capital, living in hotels.  That allowed me to revisit all of the places I wanted to use, in my spare time.  One day, I needed to check out Regent’s Park, and let me tell you – it’s a long walk around the perimeter.  That’s when I used a ‘Boris Bike’ for the first time.  As an author wanting to get the feel of an area, the Boris Bike is an absolute boon.  It’s faster than feet, allows you to cover an area quickly and when you’re done, the bike is no longer your problem!  Thanks Boris!

My method of working, then:

  • Get a general feel for an area using Google Earth or Google maps
  • If there’s a building of interest, research it on the net, especially its history.  What was there before?
  • Go visit and employ your author senses to spot those interesting details that others miss.
  • If you can get inside, do.  These days, with security, it’s a lot more difficult than it used to be, but a mixture of cheek and charm works wonders.  I’ve been really fortunate, in that I work in IT and often get sent to random locations.  If I end up at one that’s interesting, I’ll use it.
  • Take a paid tour.  The London guides are really knowledgeable and they’ll show you things you’d otherwise miss.

The Secrets of Porton Down

Back to the original question: given that I’m an eyes on sort of guy, how the hell do I get inside of Porton Down, in order to write about the chemical and biological weapons research that took place there?  The answer is to use your imagination.  I’ve driven past Porton Down many times, but never actually been inside.  I have been to a dozen military bases scattered across the South West and Salisbury plain, during my time working in Defence, on a 6 month contract that lasted 12 years.

I love being around the military, they have a great mindset and an insane sense of humour.  They work on the premise that being underfunded, stuff will break or fuck-up – that’s life, get on with it then communicate the fix.  For Porton Down,  I know the sort of people who work there from my visits to DSTL in Portsmouth, I know that stuff broke or went wrong.  So I’m going to concentrate on the historical screw-ups that got us to where we are in the story, rather than precisely how it all looks.  All of the military bases I’ve visited in the South West are similar in design, so a generic bunker will do.

When all is said and done, I’m writing a conspiracy novel.  Anyone wanting to locate the exact bunker where the chemical experiments into psychic phenomena took place won’t be able to find it on a map.  Surely, that’s because the government buried it?  Or could the real reason be that I have secret inside knowledge of a black project, communicated to me by a scientist who worked on it and I’ve purposefully moved the location from nearby Boscombe Down, in order to throw the reader?

You’ll have to make your own mind up on that…


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