When John and Denise Nesbitt moved to the North York Moors four years ago, they were ready for a rural life. They had even gathered a collection of geese, chickens and dogs. But what they hadn't expected was to be given custody of some rusty official Home Office apparatus under the stairs.
"I thought they were having us on," says Denise as she recalls their move into what was once the village police house. "The previous owners showed us around and then said, 'Oh, and by the way, you have to operate the nuclear warning'."
With their move from Guisborough to Liverton, the Nesbitts had inherited new roles as United Kingdom Warning and Monitoring Officers. In the event of a nuclear attack, it would be their job to warn the locals. Although in urban areas electrical signals attached to the town hall and fire or police station were the norm, in rural areas, emergency planning sometimes relied on the goodwill of ordinary villagers.
"It's ridiculous," says Denise. "You think of all the billions of pounds the Government spends on nuclear warheads and defence, but when it comes to telling people about it, it's down to a housewife sitting in a cupboard under the stairs."
A grey BT receiver box connected the Nesbitts' shoe cupboard direct to the Home Office, and a small one-way radio transmitted an intermittent beep showing that it was operational. Three times in one year, the Nesbitts received a letter giving them a week's notice before the 8pm evening drill. On these occasions, Denise, John and Tess, the border collie, were required to take their places under the stairs and tune in the radio to receive a very special announcement. Denise loses her
accent momentarily to impersonate: "This is the Home Office Early Warning Test". Cleveland
During the drill, the announcement would be followed by a number of test signals. "Attack Warning Red" was indicated by an unearthly warbling, while a high-pitched pip meant "Fallout Warning Black". "Attack Message White" signified all-clear.
In the event of The Real Thing, the Attack Warning Red signal would be followed by an announcement instructing the Nesbitts to sound the alarm - a hand-cranked air-raid siren kept in a wooden crate in the outside toilet.
John gives me a demonstration in the garden. It takes about 20 minutes of minor repairs and a can of WD40 before he's ready to sound the red alert (imminent danger of attack). Even so, he has yet to get the siren up on to the roof, as would have been standard procedure. Eventually, John is ready to follow the mildewed instructions for Red Warning, to be signalled by "a rising and falling note lasting for one minute".
Today, the instructions read like a macabre Blue Peter "how-to" feature. But in an emergency? "We wouldn't stand a chance," admits Denise. "Given that you've got about three minutes to do the whole thing." "Besides," adds John, "the handle fell off after the first couple of weeks."
When John reported the loose handle one December, a police officer called round to carry out an inspection. "I told him he'd have to come back after Christmas," says Denise. "I was using the crate to stand the tree on. The policeman just said 'OK', had a cup of tea, and went."
Clearly the Home Office was confident that no self-respecting superpower would launch an attack during the festive season.
In 1992, Kenneth Clark, then Home Secretary, wrote thanking Mr and Mrs Nesbitt for their participation but said that now the Cold War was over, please could he have his siren back? The Nesbitts simply locked the outside toilet and denied all knowledge. "We didn't want to give it back, they were only going to dump it." Rather than allow a bizarre epoch of home front defence to fade into techno-oblivion, Denise resolved to act as its guardian.
Although there is currently no threat of atomic attack, a new early warning system is being developed, as yet with no deadline for its installation. The scheme will make use exclusively of professional broadcasters, so there will no longer be a place in that flurry of technology for the great British amateur. But in the meantime, should anyone wish to update Dad's Army for the nuclear age, the Nesbitts would be happy to help write the scripts.
Copyright 1995 Newspaper Publishing PLC