Bad Science author Ben Goldacre has a passion for abandoned nuclear bunkers and decrepit, disused railway stations. He tells Tanya Combrinck about his new site, nerdydaytrips.com, which plots them all on a map with other nerdy points of interest
Tanya Combrinck: Tell us about your ideal kind of day trip.
Ben Goldacre: I'm not really interested in guide book stuff, I'm interested in stuff that's off the beaten track. There's a really great abandoned slip road off the M1 around Hendon which has this strange, otherworldly quality, it's like something out of a zombie movie. The plants are pushing up through the concrete and it's huge, but it's just been left to rot because it didn't fit in with whatever the road plan was. So places like that, or abandoned nuclear bunkers that haven't been turned into museums, that's the sort of thing I'm interested in, and it's the sort of thing you only get from local knowledge rather than guide books. That's the kind of thing I want people to post on nerdydaytrips.com.
TC: What else is there in the UK?
BG: The Royal Observer Corps built a network of underground bunkers laid out at seven mile intervals that covered the whole of the UK. They’re very tiny underground bunkers which somebody would live in, and in the case of nuclear attack they signalled how much radioactive fall-out there was by blowing fireworks out of the top - so three bangs meant “Run away and hide, you're all going to die!” and so on. Lots of them are still around, they're only about 15ft by 6ft, and if you know where to find them - they're often just in a farmer's field somewhere - you can lift up the hatch, climb down the steps and you're inside.
So that kind of thing is totally optimal to me. Or another great one is The Romney Hythe and Dymchurch Narrow Gauge Railway. It's a narrow gauge railway that starts off being a really dinky, nice kind of touristy sea-side attraction, but then after a while you start going through slightly awful council estates, and then you end up in this barren wasteland until you're finally dumped at the bottom of an enormous nuclear power station in Dungeness. That's quite good.
TC: Chernobyl sounds like a good one.
BG: Yes, it's that “suddenly-abandoned” thing, which is really interesting. That’s one of the things we’re going to change on the map. I think there are about 1600 points on it already, but quite a lot of them are museums - I want mad, unstructured stuff. So we're going to update the map so that every type of destination has a different colour, so museums will be one colour, and weird abandoned stuff will be another colour. So you can look specifically for weird abandoned stuff.
TC: Can you put your own stories and pictures on the site?
BG: Anyone can post, but at the moment you can't post pictures straight onto the site – although you can link to pictures hosted elsewhere. The next thing we're planning on doing is a mobile phone app. The app will work out where you are, and if you find an interesting thing you can take a picture and it will post it straight onto the map. The other really great thing we're going to do is route planning, so we're going to tell you the most interesting and nerdy way to get from Leeds to Sheffield, for example. The phone app will also have that, and it will also tell you what's the nearest interesting thing.
TC: Who are you working with to do this?
BG: Alex Ball from Applecado. He's brilliant, he popped up from nowhere. This all started when I got bored one afternoon and I asked people for interesting things to do in London, I was specifically asking for abandoned industrial architecture and that sort of thing, and a librarian called Jo Brodie popped up, and she's really into information curation. She grabbed a list of them using various clever automatic tricks, and I knocked up a blog post on Posterous which had an embedded Google Map that anyone could edit. That post got 70 or 80 thousand views, and about 150 people added sites. The problem was that people who didn't really know what they were doing were trying make edits, and they'd end up moving points to the middle of the Atlantic Ocean and so on. So I tweeted asking if anyone had a better way to do it, and Alex appeared out of the blue. I've never met him, but that's true of a lot of the people you end up doing projects with these days!