The Fake Secret Town In Southern England

It has a pizza restaurant, a gym, a bank and more. But nobody lives in one of England’s most secretive towns…

Think of a secret town and your mind might conjure up an image of a walled city, or a village tucked in a meadow between mountains, or even a long deserted town in the desert. But Kent? The Garden of England? It seems unlikely. But there it is, in the shadow of the docks in Gravesend.

The secret town is, in fact, the Metropolitan Police Specialist Training Centre. It’s a fake town. A facade. It has buildings and streets, complete with names and signs, but there’s nothing behind the building fronts. No one walks its streets, crosses its roads, or sleeps in its doorways. No one eats in its pizza restaurant, shops in its shoe shop, or works out in its gym. There’s no work done in its offices.

Outside, however, there’s plenty of action. It’s seen more explosions than Coronation Street and more shoot outs than Albert Square. At one end of town, beside a grandstand, riot shields are stacked up. At the other, crates of milk bottles wait to be turned into petrol bombs. Its mini roundabouts are framed by burned out cars. In one street, an empty shopping trolley sits, surrounded by shards of broken glass and bricks. On the corner, a dummy lies slumped against a wall. This is about as serious as roleplay gets.

Despite looking like its come straight from a 1960s kitchen sink drama, complete with authentic period shop signs (when did you last see a Pizzaland?), the MPSTC didn’t open until 2003. Its creator, Cubic Range Design Solutions, describes its objective as providing ‘London’s officers with firearms and public order training, which would help to maintain the Metropolitan Police Service’s worldwide reputation as a leading law enforcement agency.’

The town includes train, subway, and aircraft mock-ups, indoor and outdoor live-fire shooting ranges, and an assault house for practicing method of entry techniques. There are HD projection training simulators, laser-based 3D training systems, and classrooms with the latest IT kit. There’s also accommodation and leisure facilities for up to 300 officers. Oh, and an abseil tower and stables for up to ten horses.

Photographer James Rawling was allowed access to the site in 2013 and described one training session he witnessed. ‘[It] involved 15 policemen forming a mob armed with petrol bombs, wooden bricks and glass bottles. Completely in character, they proceeded to antagonize other officers, who were acting as the response unit, slowly dispersing and detaining the mob. The level of authenticity as well as the extensive practice of formations and drills really showed me how much attention and effort goes into preparing for public disorder in London. Now, I don’t know if I should feel safe or scared.’

The site covers 38-hectares and cost £50m to build, with a further £90m spent on the shooting school with mocked-up airport terminal. It’s used to train around 3,500 police officers a year. When it opened in 2003, the then Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Sir John Stevens said it would ‘provide us with cutting-edge facilities that are some of the most advanced in the world.’