Maze: Sneak preview of Northern Ireland's old prison site as preparations get under way for the hosting of May's Balmoral Show
It was once home to the H-Blocks, but as preparations get under way for the hosting of May's Balmoral Show, Linda Stewart gets a sneak preview of what's happening at the old prison site
In the distance lie a couple of watchtowers with low, fortified buildings between them. That's all that remains of the notorious Maze Prison as it awaits its metamorphosis into a Peace and Conflict Transformation Centre.
But the acres of stony earth and scrub surrounding the former prison are now dotted with bright yellow diggers busily swivelling in the sunshine as contractors race to get the site ready for the Balmoral Show in May this year.
Almost all the infamous H-Blocks have been razed to the ground and the rubble recycled into aggregate to construct the roads, foundations and arenas in the new Balmoral Park, where agricultural show visitors will mingle with livestock this spring.
The vast site is 365 acres, twice the size of the Titanic Quarter and four times as big as Canary Wharf. But it has lain silent for what seems like an age, until the Royal Ulster Agricultural Society voted to up sticks and planning permission was granted to go ahead with the new home of the Balmoral Show earlier this year.
While RUAS chief executive Colin McDonald says the show was doing well in its south Belfast home and was one of the top 10 events in Ireland in terms of visitor numbers, he had warned that it faced a "slow death" unless it moved to a less constricted site. Now he predicts that every aspect of the show can be bigger and better this year, with plans under way for many livestock classes that couldn't be accommodated before.
Meanwhile, the busy show will be able to pump prime activity into the Maze site, breathing new life into its empty vistas.
"What we want it to be is a hive of activity," Mr McDonald said.
"Nobody used this site, nobody came here, nobody walked across it.
"What we can do is get people here and get them used to it and turn this part of our troubled past into something positive."
Most of the work being done at present is invisible underground development, installing pipes beneath the surface to ferry water, electricity and waste.
But at the front of the 65-acre Balmoral Park site, close to one of the old RAF Long Kesh airfield runways, the wide green main arena is already taking shape.
Around its edges the diggers are starting to build piles of earth and stone that will eventually become a series of green contoured hills from where spectators can watch events.
In time that arena will be neighbour to an entrance canopy looking onto the runway boulevard running along the front of Balmoral Park, a covered structure where events and outdoor markets can be held.
Before that, a new King's Hall pavilion will go up in summer 2014 after it has been relocated from the south Belfast site. The plans also show a new Adrenalin zone alongside the children's farm, a major shopping village area that is bigger than the old King's Hall, and vast areas of exhibitor parking.
In April the first of the marquees are to go up ahead of the show, which runs from May 15-17. Huge marquees will be used to house livestock, with the cattle housing running to 175x40m. In all, there will 24,000 square metres of canvas at Balmoral Park this spring.
Meanwhile, the site is designed to be carbon neutral from the outset, with an energy park featuring wind turbines, photovoltaic solar panels and a biomass plant powered by willow and miscanthus and providing electricity and heat.
And plans for a road link to the M1 are now at the procurement stage. This link would connect the site to the roundabout where the Sprucefield park and ride is situated, and is expected to be completed in 2015.