Wartime bunker set to be next jewel in city’s tourism crown

Dean Paton at Western Approaches

A former secret bunker – used to mastermind the Battle of the Atlantic from the heart of Liverpool – is undergoing a major transformation.

Social enterprise Big Heritage, based in Chester, this week signed terms with Shelborn Asset Management, owners of Exchange Flags, to take over the attraction on a long-term lease of to transform the ‘Western Approaches’ World War Two museum.

The company has been credited with a renaissance of heritage activity in Chester, most recently organising the world’s biggest digital heritage project in partnership with Pokémon GO, which attracted more than 16,000 people.

Big Heritage founder Dean Paton and his team of archaeologists, project managers and builders have already set underway plans to accurately restore the forgotten city centre visitor experience back to its former glories.

Over the next six weeks, Big Heritage will be restoring a labyrinth of rooms within the underground bunker headquarters and recreating an entire underground 1940s street, complete with stocked sweet shop and pub, community classroom facility, and a range of interactive exhibits and attractions.

The plan is to re-open Western Approaches to families in time for the October half term.

“Western Approaches HQ is one of the most important buildings in the world associated with the Second World War,” said Dean Paton, founder of Big Heritage and project leader for the renovation. “Whilst it was meant to be a secret during the war, sadly in recent decades it has become almost anonymous once again.

“In the 1940s, when Winston Churchill and his top admirals were planning how to tackle the threats in the Atlantic, the highest level of secrecy was exactly what they would have wanted – in fact, the building only officially existed in the 1960s, way after the war had ended!

“Now’s the time to change all that and to showcase this amazing attraction to the world.

“And that is really, really exciting for all of us at Big Heritage and the team and I are bringing our usual innovation and energy to making the very best of this globally significant attraction. We can’t wait to share it with the city and thousands of visitors every year.”

Dust-covered artefacts and archives are being discovered daily during the renovation of the bomb-proof and gas proof building, which has a seven-foot roof, three feet deep walls and hundreds of rooms covering more than 30,000 square feet.

In fact, some rooms have not even been opened yet within the attraction.

“We’re genuinely uncovering something new every day,” added Paton. “We’ve found a number of previously forgotten rooms, and have unearthed a few exciting finds along the way. It’s a treasure trove of World War II memories archived and stored for decades. What’s exciting is that much of this stuff hasn’t even been seen before by the public.

“But we also have lots of ideas to bring the attraction to life for families, for schools, for visitors, and for businesses based in the city. We can’t wait to share it with everyone.”

Western Approaches headquarters, which was also known as the Citadel or the Fortress due to its reinforced concrete protection – was staffed predominantly by WRNS (Women’s Royal Naval Service), known affectionately as “Wrens” and WAAFS (members of the Women’s Auxillary Air Force).

It was also home to commanders including Admiral Sir Max Horton, who oversaw the Battle of the Atlantic campaign, Captain Johnny Walker, who sank more U-Boats that any other Allied commander, and was regularly visited by war-time Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Prince Phillip was also believed to have undertaken anti-submarine training in the building during the war.

Flashback to the bunker in WWII