THERE are low-rise offices and high-rise accommodation blocks; at one side sits a sports complex and along the road is a health centre. There’s a bustling refectory, shops, a couple of bars. As groups of young people make their way from one building to another there’s the usual banter and laughter – you could be on any out-of-town university campus in the UK.

Only the military uniforms suggest a different type of institution. And the rather cool welcome when you first arrive: high fences and barbed wire, gates where unsmiling armed police in black SWAT-team gear look you up and down. Welcome to Faslane.

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HM Naval Base Clyde, to use its formal name, is home to the submarines that carry and would, if the time ever came, fire the UK’s nuclear weapons. It has been part of Scotland’s west coast landscape, and the political landscape, for more than half a century.

The name Faslane is, of course, synonymous with the nuclear warheads carried on the Vanguard-class subs based here (when not on the subs, the weapons are actually kept 10 minutes round the coast at Coulport) and anti-nuclear campaigners have been protesting outside for almost as long as it has existed.

HeraldScotland: FASLANE, SCOTLAND - AUGUST 17: a general view of HMNB Clyde also known as Faslane on August 17, 2016 in Faslane, Scotland. HM Naval Base Clyde – commonly known throughout the Navy as Faslane – is the Royal Navy’s main presence in Scotland. It is hom

Over the years politicians on both sides of the argument have used the base, which is a 10-minute drive from Helensburgh, as a political football; during the independence referendum campaign in 2014, inaccurate claims were made by both Yes and No campaigners about issues ranging from the number of people who work there to the value of the base to the Scottish economy. Just about everybody, it seems, has an opinion about Faslane, and since a recent rather low-profile vote in the House of Commons determined that the UK will continue to be a nuclear power, the symbolic power of this place can’t be underestimated.

But regardless of your moral take on nuclear weapons, the fact remains it’s also a place where people go to work. And the place where some of them live.

Few get the chance to go inside and soak up the atmosphere of the base; indeed The Herald Magazine is the first publication ever allowed intimate access to mix with the sailors and civilians who live and work here, to see them do their jobs and talk to them about their lives. This piece isn’t about the rights or wrongs of nuclear weapons – those arguments have been, and no doubt will be again, rehearsed elsewhere. What interested me was the nature of everyday life in a place like this. Is there such a thing? What’s it like to live and work inside one of the most protected places on the planet?

Once you get through security – which takes a considerable time – one thing becomes clear right away: there’s far more to Faslane than nukes. Indeed, it couldn’t be otherwise in what is effectively a small town employing around 6,800 people in a variety of military and civilian jobs, from sailors, submariners, elite marines and armed police to engineers, nurses, gym instructors, chefs, gardeners and cleaners. Normal, everyday life does exist at Faslane, thriving amid the close camaraderie of the staff, more than 2,000 of whom live on site.

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“I reckon the worst thing about living here is the parking,” laughs Able Seaman Tom Penman, a young Scottish submariner. “We get tickets all the time. Nightmare.” And the best bits?

HeraldScotland: A general view of HMNB Clyde also known as Faslane on August 17, 2016 in Faslane, Scotland.

“I suppose it’s a bit like living in a halls of residence,” he says. “It’s actually more fun than you might think. I never lock my door and there’s always someone around to have a chat and a drink with. There’s always music playing. And there’s a really good gym.”

We’re sitting in the bowels of HMS Artful, one of three Astute-class nuclear-powered attack submarines currently in service. Four more are on order. This class of boat, as they are called by the navy, doesn’t carry nuclear weapons, but protects the four Vanguard subs that do. Equipped with long range Tomahawk missiles and shorter range torpedoes, the 7,400-tonne Astute-class giants generate their own power, air and water at sea and can travel undetected for long periods through the world’s oceans; the only thing that requires them to come back to dry land is food.

It’s difficult to describe the size and might of this craft as it sits in the “shiplift” – essentially the biggest garage you could ever imagine – for maintenance. From a distance, the 97m-long submarine resembles a giant black whale; the dictionary definition of the word awesome – “extremely impressive or daunting” – comes to mind.

Penman is chatting to me in the officers’ recreation room, a small, cramped space that reminds you of a 1980s caravan without the windows, alongside the sub’s commanding officer, Stuart Armstrong. The room sits at the end of a long corridor surrounded by pipes and crammed with valves, dials and pistons. Despite this being one of the most state-of-the-art submarines in the world, it has something of a vintage feel; if you’ve seen The Hunt for Red October you’ll have some idea of the extraordinary conditions the submariners work in every day, whether on land, as now, or at sea.

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Penman runs up and down the ladders with ease. The young weapons engineer technician has been in the navy for two years, attracted by the qualifications and career progression as well as the sense of adventure and opportunity to travel – not that you see much from a submarine.

“I love my job,” he says, “but it’s obviously important to have the right attitude and temperament. You’re often away for weeks at a time and because it’s so cramped down here you can’t mind living in close proximity to others. And you’ve got to have a good sense of humour.

HeraldScotland: Vanguard-class submarine HMS Vigilant, one of the UK's four nuclear warhead-carrying submarines, at HM Naval Base Clyde, also known as Faslane. Picture Danny Lawson/PA Wire

“It’s the same when you’re back here at base. I share a room – we say a cabin – with a shipmate. If you join the navy you already have a certain mentality, and we all share that. We work and socialise together, we support each other. We’re like a family.”

Commander Armstrong, who heads up a team of 160 submariners, 138 of whom are at sea at any one time, agrees that his team is a close-knit unit – when you’re under water for weeks on end, it has to be. This sense of community will be even more important, he adds, when an expansion begins in 2020 that will see all the UK’s submarines based at Faslane. Around £1.3 billion is being invested on the site to facilitate the expansion in military personnel – around 1,300 extra staff – the move will require.

“This base has to provide all the facilities of a town,” he adds. “We’re aware Faslane is quite remote, and we’re working hard to recognise and increase the engagement with families – they can come in and visit, and use facilities like the gym. We have a desire to integrate all parts of life as best we can. And the improvements we have planned – we're building 2,800 ensuite rooms – will help us achieve this.”

Unlike Penman, Medical Assistant Steph McLaughlin has her own room at the base. The Scot has been in the navy for six years and was particularly pleased when she was posted to Faslane because it means she can go home at weekends and spend time with friends and family – her previous posting was Cornwall.

McLaughlin enjoys the variety of the work the on-site medical centre offers. The practice serves a population of around 5,000 and is open 365 days a year; the medic sees a wide range of ailments each day, usually bumps and grazes, colds and flu, sports injuries. McLaughlin and her colleagues also arrange vaccinations and tests, and refer their patients – mostly naval, but some civilians – to other services. There’s a trauma suite for emergencies and simple surgery such as mole removals can be done by navy doctors. The staff are trained to deal with nuclear events and there is a specialist decontamination area.

A full programme of dental care is also offered. This is particularly important since many of the patients are away at sea for months at a time; you certainly wouldn’t want a toothache if you were a submariner on patrol in the North Atlantic. Dental checks are non-negotiable for naval personnel – on the plus side, the treatment is free.

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“It’s a very close-knit team here,” McLaughlin smiles. “You have to be able to interact with everyone, regardless of their rank or job. I love the problem-solving aspect of this role and the fact you can genuinely make a difference to your patients. You can help make their life a bit easier.

“Sometimes it can be tough living at the base because it’s quite remote and there’s not a huge amount to do outside of work. But that’s why it’s good that in my job I get to meet and mix with people from so many walks of life.”

Despite this stiff-upper-lip attitude, you can see how living on a secure naval base might have its downsides, especially for young people. Naval personnel can leave the base while off duty, but the surrounding area isn’t exactly party central, and Glasgow’s attractions are a full hour away by car or on public transport.

With this in mind, Leading Physical Training Instructor (PTI) Martin Potter sees keeping up the spirits of those who live on site as one of the most important parts of his job. The fitness instructor reels off 32 sports and activities offered here, from skiing to rugby, netball to weightlifting, yoga to go-karting and horse-riding. There’s also a full programme of adventure training including mountaineering in the Alps and Himalayas.

HeraldScotland: FA general view of HMNB Clyde also known as Faslane on August 17, 2016 in Faslane, Scotland. HM Naval Base Clyde – commonly known throughout the Navy as Faslane – is the Royal Navy’s main presence in Scotland

Potter, who also lives at the base, admits he had concerns when told he was being posted to Faslane – not least of which was the weather. He gave up a career as an estate agent specifically to become a navy PTI – one of the toughest jobs in the service to get into – and says he has been surprised how much he enjoys life here.

There’s something about the uniform of the PTIs (“club swingers” as they are known in these parts) – white shorts and vests with vintage insignia - reminiscent of Richard Gere in An Officer and a Gentleman. The atmosphere at the sports complex is relaxed, and there’s constant banter between the staff and their charges. The place has the feel of a normal gym, though you can’t help but notice that most of those using the facilities, both male and female, are toned to within an inch of their lives – there are few spare tyres amid the muscles and Lycra.

Potter’s role is varied, from fitness classes for civilians looking for a bit of lunchtime exercise to brutal training programmes for elite marines. He and his colleagues, who are specially selected after completing a gruelling 28-week course in Portsmouth – “if I’m telling people to do something, I should be able to do double that” – also run fitness tests for naval personnel. It is Potter’s responsibility to knock new recruits into shape and keep them fit throughout their naval career. And a big part of this, he says, is mental stimulation.

“Doing sport and getting fit is the best form of stress release you can get,” says Potter, a keen boxer. “That’s why we offer such a range of activities. You need these things to keep people busy.

“This place is the hub of the whole base – everyone comes here. If it’s not to use the gym it’s for fitness testing, or for nutritional advice, or to do sport. But they also come in for a cup of tea and a bit of a chat and a laugh. Mental health is so important, especially when there’s not a whole lot to do on site. You need to keep people’s spirits high."

I ask him whether navy life has lived up to the expectations he had when he packed in his old life as an estate agent. “There’s no way I’ll ever be stuck behind a desk trying to blag people into buying a house again,” he laughs. “I regularly spend 14 hours a day in this place – this is what I love doing.

“I don’t mind living on site. All the PTIs live on the same corridor and we make sure we enjoy ourselves. It’s a good laugh, actually.”

Life here has a different feel for the civilian population, most of whom go home when their work is done. For them, military life rubs alongside the norms of any big workplace. There's a campus bus to ferry people around, and civvies can also use the gym, refectory, shops and bars. It's not exactly a glamorous place to work – the architecture is functional at best – but such surroundings would be familiar to engineers and civil servants up and down the country. Every now and then, between the office blocks and hangars, however, you get a glimpse of the hills and the loch beyond. Or a navy minesweeper.

Katie Brown is one of 39 young apprentices at the base training in an array of engineering skills and roles. She works for Babcock, which alongside the Ministry of Defence employs the majority of civilians here, and has just completed her first year; there's another three to go before she is a fully fledged mechanical engineer. Her current rotation involves maintaining the estates on the base – the heating system in the accommodation blocks and the swimming pool, but in the future she will have the opportunity to work on the submarines and other vessels. She's looking forward to that.

“It’s brilliant working here,” says Brown. “I love the fact the training and work is very hands-on.

“Originally I was doing business administration at college, but I found it really boring. My dad has a garage and I was always more interested in tinkering around with the tools and cars – that’s what attracted me to engineering.”

Babcock says it is making special efforts to recruit more young women to its apprentice and graduate programmes, and the approach is slowly bearing fruit, though Brown is still in the minority gender-wise.

“My friends were quite surprised when I told them I was applying for this apprenticeship – they wouldn’t be interested in doing this job," she says, "but my mum was particularly encouraging. More girls should go for this type of opportunity – they are just as capable as boys at engineering, even more so.

“You get to meet so many people from different walks of life here. And there’s such a wide variety of jobs I could end up doing here – hopefully there will be a full career ahead for me.”

The sun is shining and the deep waters of the Gare Loch are calm, In the distance the Arrochar Alps shimmer; it’s a glorious sight. I’m enjoying the scenery from the water while out on patrol in a £1m boat with MoD Police Sergeant John Simpson and his team.

As well as being part of an elite squad of armed officers, Simpson, a friendly, quietly spoken presence, is also the base’s wildlife crime officer, responsible for ensuring Faslane respects and protects the natural environment it exists in, one of the most diverse habitats in Scotland.

Simpson, a wildlife enthusiast since childhood, speaks with passion and knowledge about the 90 species you can see here, from red deer and wildcat to harbour porpoise, seals and minke and humpback whales. A number of protected species, including the sea eagle, can also be seen in these parts, while central Scotland’s only hen harriers – four pairs – nest nearby, and the area also has the country's largest colony of eider ducks.

“It’s absolutely crucial that we protect the welfare of all the wildlife here, and we rely on the people who live nearby to help us do this."

As much as he loves this aspect of the work, wildlife is a secondary concern for Simpson. His first responsibility is the security of the base and its “assets”, as they are referred to here. It is MoD police, not military police, who protect the base, alongside elite Royal Marines. According to Simpson, the distinction is important.

“We employ a unique blend of policing and military skills," he says. "There is nothing quite like it anywhere else. We are not military police – we’re here to help keep military personnel grounded.”

There are several hundred MoD police at this site, the largest concentration in the UK, and although they have a special role they also deal with routine police work.

“This is a small town in its own right," says Simpson. "We see with the sort of incidents you would get anywhere else, such as theft, assaults, public order incidents, people who have had a few too many drinks in the evening. It’s a varied job, and that’s what I enjoy most about it.”

Simpson is a calm and confident figure; you can imagine him talking down a brawl in a city centre. He and his team are trained to tackle far more sinister situations, but he is keen to play this down.

“This job is all about quality of training and communication skills,” he says. “Knowing when to tone down a situation, talking to people to de-escalate a situation.

“The most important elements of my job are education and enforcement. Education is important because it stops the need for enforcement – and the amount of enforcement needed here at Faslane is negligible, thankfully.”

In many ways Simpson reflects the calm, very routine atmosphere you find throughout the site, while his dual role – wildlife expert and armed policeman – speaks to the wider significance of the base.

As he and the team steer our boat back to shore, Simpson points to the spot where a seal was recently spotted basking in the sun on the hull of a nuclear submarine. The ordinary and the extraordinary living side by side in Scotland’s beautiful landscape – a bit like Faslane itself.

l Faslane, or HM Naval Base Clyde, is one of the biggest employment sites in Scotland, with some 6,800 employees, equally split between military and civilian personnel.

l More than 2,000 people – mostly service personnel – live on site at any one time. Family accommodation is situated in nearby Helensburgh.

l From 2020, the base will be the single operational home of the UK’s submarine service. By 2022, staff numbers will rise by 1,400 to 8,200. Around 1,300 of the new staff will be navy personnel. Eventually all aspects of submarine life will be based on the Clyde, including 11 “boats” and all supporting staff. The vessels will continue to be built in Cumbria and undergo refits at Devonport in Plymouth.

l A £1.3bn upgrade of the site is under way to facilitate this move, including new and improved accommodation blocks, more engineering capacity and increased security.

l Currently two classes of nuclear submarines – the Vanguards, which carry nuclear weapons, and the Astute class, which protect them with conventional weapons – are based at Faslane.

l As well as carrying and protecting the UK’s nuclear weapons, the MOD define the role of the submarines as "warfighting, maritime security and international engagement". To do this they undertake intelligence gathering, anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare and counter-terrorism work. The Astute class has been involved in recent operations in the Mediterranean and Libya.

l Last month, MPs voted to renew the UK’s nuclear weapons. A new generation of submarines will start arriving at Faslane from 2030.

l The SNP-led Scottish Government is in favour of unilateral nuclear disarmament. It has said that in an independent Scotland Faslane would be turned into a conventional naval base.

l Faslane is not just a submarine base. It is also home to seven Sandown-class minehunter ships, supported by eight crews, and the Royal Navy’s 43 Commando Fleet Protection Group Royal Marines. They primarily guard the nuclear weapons, but are also deployed to support navy operations around the world.

l Submarine training and rescue teams are also based on the Clyde, as is the UK’s northern military diving team.

l The UK’s biggest squad of MoD Police patrol and secure the base, and investigate on-site crime. They are a separate force from the military police.

l HMS Neptune is the administrative centre for Royal Navy personnel at the base covering medical needs, sport and adventure training, welfare, chaplaincy, education and accommodation.