Inside the secret Ballymena nuclear bunker that could be yours for just £575,000
No harm to Ballymena but it's one of the last places on earth you'd expect to find what could have been one of the last places on earth. And not many people in the Co Antrim town know that they have in their midst a huge hi-tech nuclear bunker that was designed to protect a chosen few VIPs in the event of a catastrophic Cold War meltdown.
But now the 46,000 square foot bunker, which has its own living quarters for 235 people and even a TV studio, is up for sale. And it won't cost a bomb.
The decommissioned bunker, which is hidden away on a self-contained and enclosed 3.74 acre site in the Woodside industrial estate, cost millions to build but it's on the market for a knockdown £575,000. Using the patter so beloved of their business, commercial property agents Lambert Smith Hampton who are handling the sale say the split-level property which has one section completely underground "blends into its surroundings disguised by a grass roof".
And it really is the last word in a retreat in the country to get away from it all. Especially the radiation.
The Regional Government Headquarters as it was called is similar to 35 other military and civil defence fortifications built around the UK between 1955 and 1965 when the world was gripped by fears over the possible nuclear fall-out from fall-outs between America and Russia.
But the Ballymena bunker is a much later addition to the atomic family, so to speak, having been commissioned in 1980 and completed 10 years later when it was shrouded in secrecy. It's one of the last and most advanced of all the UK centres.
And it was the fall of the Berlin Wall which helped to bunker the bunkers.
However, the thawing of Cold War relationships was only one reason why the bunkers became redundant in an age where even today the likes of North Korea's Kim Jong-un is still bristling with bravura about his nuclear capabilities.
But experts say the destructive potential of the new nukes is so massive that nothing would be spared in the event of an attack, not even the most secure of shelters in the city of the Seven Towers and the One Bunker.
But who would have lived in a house like this? Yesterday I got a rare chance to go through the keyhole into the remarkable hideaway at the end of a busy road in the Woodside estate.
There are three ways into the bunker through massive interlocking double blast doors and all the walls are three feet thick with concrete that has been reinforced with steel.
Inside, some say their first impression is of a netherworld which reeks of spies and spooks. But for me it was just plain spooky… a sort of Marie Celeste on dry land.
It's easy to get lost in the maze of meandering corridors leading to at least 60 rooms that include a large number of conference facilities, control centres, medical units and obligatory decontamination chambers.
Also dotted around the nuclear nerve-centre are offices with signs saying they're for Government officials involved in the likes of transport, water or shipping and there also a series of rooms for the police and Army dealing with law and order and one room is assigned simply to 'intelligence'.
And then there are the dormitories. Loads of them, each with up to 20 bunk beds - with mattresses from the cosy sounding Cuddledown brand range - so tightly packed together that any nocturnal calls of nature would probably have to go unanswered in the conventional manner.
The stainless steel kitchen looks like something out of a five-star hotel though the food on offer is anything but Gordon Ramsey with ration packs of oat biscuits and tins of peas, pies, sausages and powdered eggs which only a brave man or a lunatic would dare to eat nowadays.
But it's clear the bunker brigade weren't totally bonkers and wouldn't have stinted on life's little luxuries. In a storeroom there are even gravy boats for the folk who would have climbed aboard the survival gravy train.
However, it's also obvious that the planners envisaged more men in responsible positions inside the Woodside wonderland.
For there are two loos for the lads and only one for the ladies. And like everything else in this strange ethereal bunker the toilets are pristine, though there's a suspicion that they'd just been given a deep clean in readiness for prospective bunker buyers.
However, regular maintenance work has been carried out at the mothballed bunker where only a few rudimentary bits and pieces of equipment are still in the TV studio with the BBC sign on the door.
The plan was for messages to be relayed to the rest of us left above ground after a nuclear onslaught though one can only imagine what in God's name they would have told us from the safety of their subterranean haven to console us.
Nearby, to help the staff de-stress and relax, there's also a rest room with a television though in the aftermath of the Big One, the choice of programming would presumably have been somewhat limited in the bunker which is owned by Stormont whose First and Deputy First Ministers one assumes would have had first dibs on the windowless rooms without a view. But it appears that Martin McGuinness, whose buddies in the IRA were no strangers to a bomb or two in their day, wasn't initially privy to the secret lurking in the Woodside estate.
During a debate at Stormont in January 2008, the SDLP'S Alex Attwood asked the Sinn Fein politician to confirm if a bunker had been constructed in Ballymena and even though an unidentified voice wondered if it was Ian Paisley junior, Mr McGuinness said: "I know absolutely nothing about a bunker in Ballymena. That sounds preposterous to me."
Mr Attwood's supplementary question about whether or not the bunker had cost between £300m and £400m obviously went unanswered, too, by the baffled Derryman. Similar buildings in England are estimated to have cost £30m but why was Ballymena picked to house the bunker here?
Andrew Fraser, a surveyor with Lambert Smith Hampton, says: "Ballymena was deemed to be the most logistically efficient place in Northern Ireland at the time. It's a strategic location between Belfast and Londonderry and is, of course, accessed by the M2."
Even Andrew didn't know the bunker existed and his visits to it have fascinated him. He says: "I didn't feel at all claustrophobic, but I imagine that if you were inside it for a long time, during an emergency, some people might feel that way."
Andrew admits that putting a value on the property wasn't easy. "We had to do a bit of research into what facilities like this in England had been sold for.
A bunker in Scotland was sold within the past 18 months and it was a close comparison for us."
He says the bunker could have a number of uses, adding: "There are some bunkers in England and Scotland which have been turned into museums."
In Portadown, one of 44 smaller bunkers built across Northern Ireland to monitor the threat of a nuclear attack after World War Two was turned into a museum by the Royal Observer Corps after it closed in 1991.
But Andrew says the Ballymena bunker might also be suitable for secure data or document storage. "Security could be racked up if needed," he says.
The agents expect a lot of interest in the Ballymena bunker and will be holding a series of open mornings over the next couple of months.
In Chislehurst in Kent a former bunker that had been converted into a palatial home went on the market last year for a cool £3m.
And Andrew says if someone in Ballymena had similar designs "it would be the most secure house in the world".
Given its almost burglar-proof doors and walls, however, the current owners of the bunker are taking no chances, having installed a series of alarms, just in case. Indeed the designers do appear to have thought of everything, apart from a couple of obvious exceptions.
No matter where I looked, and I looked everywhere, I couldn't find a laundry. Or a mobile telephone signal.