Michael Forrest: turning up at the gates of Harwell in 1957

Michael Forrest describes arriving at Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell in 1957.

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If I were to turn up at the gates of Harwell one day the year you started, what would I see? 

You’d see these huge aircraft hangers. In fact you’d think you’d just gone to an RAF station, that’s a – when you first go in. But beyond that, there were some very strange looking towers. One, it turned out, was a Van de Graaff generator, which is a – it looked like a tall chimney but with a lump on the top. And there were quite a few chimneys around and low brick buildings, which were obviously handing active – active stuff as well. And outside the perimeter fence there was another perimeter fence, if you like. There were these spheres that had the conventional vision reactors in. And then there was the – there was another building, just a – like an asbestos clad warehouse and that had a Lido, which was a swimming pool reactor that – if you went in there you could see the fuel rods just submerged under water and this was glowing blue ‘cause it had Cherenkov radiation coming off. So that was quite spectacular. I had a friend working on that and that’s why I managed to see that. But if you walked around you wouldn’t – you couldn’t tell what was going on if you just walked round the street, say. You’d have to penetrate the security of every building there. And every building there had its own watch keepers outside, even the admin building because they had this very large typing pool where they used to type a lot of classified stuff. So even there – they had security people there and some of the girls had – the typists had cubicles so the girl next to them couldn’t see what they were typing. 

Whereabouts on the site did you actually work at first? 

Hanger 7, which was the biggest big hanger on the left as you went in through the main gates. 

What was it like inside?

Full of galleries, is the impression you had. I mean, it was very high. It had about three floors of galleries. And the centre floor was where the experiments were and all these – on these galleries they had little small labs going off and offices. But the main experiments were down on – at ground level. ‘Cause this hanger was probably a hundred yards long. It was huge, a hundred yards by fifty yards. And ZETA was – in fact ZETA was more or less in through the gate, this big metal roller door gate with a small door led into it. ZETA was on your left as you went in, in this huge concrete bunker, three metre thick concrete walls round it, ‘cause they expected a lot of neutrons [laughs].

  • Interviewee Michael Forrest
  • Duration 00:02:36
  • Copyright British Library Board
  • Interviewer Thomas Lean
  • Date of interview 5/5/2011
  • Shelfmark C1379/48

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