Image: via BBC

In October 2018 work began to restore the Grand Bridge, which forms part of the monumental Blenheim Palace estate in Oxfordshire, England. It aims to revive what was long known as the “finest view in England.” But as experts started the huge $15 million project to fix the 18th century structure, they revealed a treasure trove of surprises lurking beneath.

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Blenheim Palace is perhaps best known as being the birthplace of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in 1874. Indeed, it was his father, Lord Randolph Churchill, who first coined the “finest view in England” phrase. However, Blenheim’s history stretches back much further than that.

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Blenheim Palace is the home of the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough. It was gifted to the first duke, John Churchill, as a reward for his role in winning the Battle of Blenheim against the French in 1704 during the War of the Spanish Succession.

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In 1708 architect Sir John Vanbrugh designed and executed an ambitious plan. He wanted to develop a “habitable viaduct” on the grounds of Blenheim and finished construction in 1710. This is known as the Grand Bridge, or Vanbrugh Bridge, the site of the modern restoration work. However, not everyone was so keen on the architect’s ideas.

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Sarah, First Duchess of Marlborough, was not impressed with Vanbrugh, for example. She found his plans a little too ambitious and expensive, and so Vanbrugh was banned from Blenheim. But the Grand Bridge still stands as a testament to his ideas.

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However, the Grand Bridge did not remain as Vanbrugh built it. In fact, the inside was flooded in 1768 as part of gardener and architect Lancelot “Capability” Brown’s project to bring a 160-acre set of lakes to the grounds. And the inside of the bridge has not been exposed since then.

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Indeed, it is the lakes themselves that now present a threat to the bridge. To be more precise, both sets of water, known as the Great Lake and the Queen Pool, have slowly been drying out. And if the water disappears completely, the bridge itself could become unstable.

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The drying of the lakes was caused by the build-up of silt. It has been taking place for decades. To fix it, engineers have to dredge around 400,000 tons of silt from the lake beds. This will restore them to the same depth they had when they were first created back in the 18th century.

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To begin the work, experts lowered the water level by as much as six and a half feet by installing a mix of dams, groundwater wells and siphons. This allowed them to examine the foundations of the Grand Bridge and understand what happens when they aren’t supported by water. However, it also meant the bridge’s secrets were finally revealed.

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Amazingly, architect Vanbrugh originally constructed 30 rooms inside the bridge when he built it in 1708, aiming to create the aforementioned “habitable viaduct.” This is what was flooded by Capability Brown 60 years later and has not been seen since. And as the walls were plastered, it is likely humans lived there.

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As the waters drained, the researchers began their work with a 3D survey. They found the eerie remains of chimneys and fireplaces, stairways and cooking ranges as well as a windowless chamber that may have been a theater.

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Looking closer, they could see the original plasterwork had survived in places. To show humans never change, there was graffiti on the walls from the 1760s, just as even the ancient city of Pompeii retained inscriptions even when buried in lava.

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Inside the rooms were further pieces of history. Long-sunken boats from the 1950s, once utilized for cutting reeds, lay within, as did a motorized boat. Even the remains of an old canal system are visible, and that predates the bridge itself.

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Blenheim Palace is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, having gained the accolade in 1987. That means it is crucial for the estate to be maintained in the best possible condition. And the dredging of the lakes is only one part of a major plan to preserve and restore the glory of Blenheim.

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The duration of this initial work on the lakes is estimated to be five months. The dredging project as a whole is likely to span two years, and Blenheim’s overall management plan will continue over the next decade. Even the pre-planning before any work began was four years in length. It is no small task.

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Other future plans include preserving High Park, an ancient area of woodland that is part of the Blenheim Palace estate. Indeed, according to Blenheim officials, it is one of the world’s most important ancient oak forests. And improved public transport is just one way they hope to make the site more attractive to visitors.

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Public interest is going to be important. Indeed, funds from visitor admissions will help pay for the restoration works. And as the works are expected to cost millions of pounds, every penny is going to be vital.

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Blenheim also receives money from gift aid. And development of land owned by the estate can be used to raise more funds. Further donations – from the public as well as larger corporations – are also being sought. And fundraising activities in general will be targeted at raising money for this vital work.

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Roy Cox, head of estates at Blenheim described to local newspaper the Oxford Mail the scale of the task ahead. “The dredging of Queen’s Pool and the repairs to the Grand Bridge are not only our greatest challenge to date but also marks some of the most ambitious stonework and dredging projects ever attempted in the U.K.,” he said.

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Whatever lies in the future for Blenheim Palace, it’s undoubtable that just revealing something that has been hidden so long is a great cause for excitement. Plus, it just adds to the allure of what is already one of the most historically significant and beautiful estates in all of England. But there’s a similarly intriguing subterranean secret lurking beneath an unassuming town in Florida: it’s a sprawling, underground complex, which built by the city’s richest men at the height of the Cold War.

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Somewhere in an orange grove on the outskirts of Mount Dora, a 2,000-pound steel door hides a set of steps leading off into the dark. Those brave enough to descend will find a forgotten world, where furniture rots and cockroaches cover the walls. Once, these tunnels were considered a prime investment, owned by some of the city’s wealthiest families. But what was its purpose, and why were so many of Mount Dora’s elite prepared to shut themselves away underground?

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Back in 1959 American writer Pat Frank published a novel entitled Alas, Babylon. In it, the residents of the Florida town of Fort Repose dealt with the fallout from a nuclear war. And although Fort Repose was fictional, it was based on the real life city of Mount Dora, FL.

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As Frank’s book became a resounding success, life in Mount Dora began to mimic art. In fact, by 1961 the Cold War was in full swing. As the United States squared up against the Soviet Union, the threat of nuclear war seemed all too real. And in Florida, just 110 miles from Soviet missiles in Cuba, the fear was intense.

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Although people went about their everyday lives as normal, they began to take measures to prepare for a nuclear attack. In schools, children were taught to take shelter beneath their desks. Similarly, sirens were set up to alert citizens of an impending strike. What’s more, in many back yards across the country, homeowners began building shelters to protect their family from the devastating fallout of a nuclear bomb.

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And in Mount Dora, a group of prominent citizens were busy putting their own survival plans in place. Several belonged to the Mount Dora Yacht Club, including Lake County Health Director Dr. James Hall, and tycoons Theodore Mittendorf and William Baker. Together, they came up with idea of pooling their resources to build a giant, shared survival shelter. In time, the complex would become known as the Mount Dora Catacombs.

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The group, which also included the mayor of Mount Dora, a bank president, a school superintendent, retired teachers and a minister, approached J.G. Ray, a local builder. Apparently, they believed that a group shelter would offer many economic and social advantages.

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“Psychologically, we’re social animals,” Hall wrote in his 1962 book Medical Economics, “and there is safety in numbers. I believe that group will survive with fewer problems than will the single family attempting to go it alone. If the father were separated from his family, his wife and children wouldn’t have to fend for themselves unaided; they’d be with other families.”

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In fact, Hall believed that between five and 15 families were optimum for a survival shelter. In the event, the idea was so popular in Mount Dora that 25 families committed to the cause. Each of them invested around $2,000, which is approximately $15,000 in today’s money.

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Although he was offered a place in the shelter as part of his fee, Ray declined and instead accepted $60,000 to complete the job. Over the course of the next six months, a crew of 15 people worked secretly to construct the 5,000 square foot shelter.

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One of the group’s fears was that others in the community would find out about the shelter. So because they did not have room for everyone, Hall told curious visitors that he was building a croquet court. Impressively, the group even went so far as to construct a real grass court to complete the illusion.

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When it was finally completed, the shelter lay hidden 6 feet underneath an orange grove on the outskirts of the city. The entrance was marked by a 2,000-pound steel door, designed to swing shut and seal off the occupants in the event of a nuclear attack. If anyone was unlucky enough not to make it in time, they would be abandoned to their fate.

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Inside, the shelter boasted more than 30 rooms, including 25 private quarters – one for each family. There was also a recreation area, two bathrooms, and a decontamination room. In fact, most reports consider it the largest bomb shelter ever built on private land.

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The shelter was designed to accommodate 100 people for as long as six months if necessary. Apparently, the group believed that this would be long enough for radiation levels on the surface to fall. After that, they would reemerge equipped with uncontaminated seeds and begin to rebuild society.

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In order for the inhabitants to survive so long underground, the shelter had plenty of mod cons. For instance, a diesel engine installed in a soundproofed room would provide power. Meanwhile, an air conditioning system and dehumidifiers would help to maintain a comfortable environment.

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In the lobby, a kitchen equipped with an electric burner would allow the inhabitants to cook meals. With no access to the outside world, they would need to survive on canned fruits and vegetables and potted meats. And to make sure that nobody tried to take more than their fair share, an armed Security Committee was established to maintain order.

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Additionally, a Medical Committee was set up to care for the health of the inhabitants. In fact, the group boasted two doctors, two nurses and a pharmacist. The shelter was also equipped with plenty of medicine and a clinic where major operations could be performed. If anyone died, they were to be buried in crypts in the walls, so that no one needed to risk going above ground.

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However, it wouldn’t all be doom and gloom inside the shelter. Into each individual unit, the 25 families also packed the essentials that they thought they would need during an extended stay underground. Among them were chocolate bars, children’s toys and even party gowns – suggesting that at least one family planned to keep their spirits high.

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As the powers that be failed to annihilate themselves over the years, each family continued to pay $200 a year in upkeep costs. That money covered the expenses associated with keeping the shelter stocked and ready should the nuclear apocalypse arrive. However, in the end the families spent just one night underground during a drill.

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By the time the 1970s rolled around, the threat of nuclear war had faded. Indeed, many of the people who had initially set up the shelter had died or left town. Eventually, the electricity and dehumidifiers were turned off, and mildew began to grow on the walls.

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Today, the Mount Dora Catacombs belong to a private owner, who acquired them after purchasing a property nearby. He hosted a few parties there, but then closed up the shelter, unable to think of a use for the vast underground space. Now, aside from the odd curious visitor admitted on a guided tour, the rooms are left to the cockroaches. But with nuclear war in the world’s headlines once more, will they soon find themselves evicted in favor of human occupants?

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