Inside Portadown bunker that brings home the terrible realities of nuclear war
Alistair McCann turned a disused monitoring post into an impeccably restored museum that shines a light on a darker, desperate time, writes Ivan Little
The only sounds breaking the silence in the rural tranquillity of Tartaraghan, a townland just outside Portadown, are the distant hum of cars on the M1 motorway a mile away, the odd bleat from a flock of sheep nearby and the chattering of birds in the surrounding trees.
All the while, a gentle breeze rustles the luxuriant grass along the Derrylettiff Road, where in one garden there's the incongruous sight of a yellow Reliant Robin van - an exact replica of the one made famous in Only Fools and Horses, right down to the Trotter's Independent Trading Co logo on the side.
But it's what is in an anonymous-looking field at the back of the house that Del Boy would have loved even more - a perfectly refurbished underground nuclear bunker that dates back to the Cold War.
Yet, visiting it on a balmy summer afternoon with its restorer, Alistair McCann, it's difficult to banish the thought that this idyllic spot is the last place in the world that anyone would have picked to prepare for what might have been the end of the world.
Its remote and peaceful location is typical of the siting of the little-known network of 58 monitoring posts built by the Government across Northern Ireland nearly 60 years ago. The bunkers were to be bases for volunteer members of the Royal Observer Corps (ROC) to monitor and report on the effects of any nuclear attack from Russia and the resulting radioactive fallout.
Lurgan man Alistair has borrowed or bought apparatus similar to what was once inside the post, including a bomb power indicator and other equipment designed to relay the height, distance and probable spread of the nuclear blasts back to Thiepval Barracks in Lisburn, which was linked to a central command in Preston and, from there, to Nato headquarters.
More than 1,400 of the posts were constructed around the UK in clusters of three or four, with the nearest neighbours to the Portadown bunker being similar structures in Armagh, Dungannon and Banbridge.
The information that would have been collated by the three ROC members in each of the posts would have been used to help the authorities work out how to help people in the aftermath of nuclear attacks. However, experts believe it is unlikely that there would have been many, if any, survivors.
Beginning in 1968, the Government set about closing a number of the bunkers. By 1991, after the gradual thawing of the Cold War, all of them had been decommissioned, stripped bare and abandoned.
Several became casualties of a conflict nearer home after they were attacked by the IRA, who wrongly believed they were being used as listening posts by the Army.
In 2009, quantity surveyor and builder Alistair realised his dream of turning the once-derelict Portadown monitoring station into a "way we were" Cold War museum.
A climb through a hatch and down a shaft via a 15-foot ladder opens up an old world that was known only too well by Alistair's grandfather, Harry Allen.
Harry was a member of the ROC, and witnessed the first sortie into British airspace by German planes during the Second World War.
"He had joined up in Edinburgh when he was a veterinary student, and his job in those days was monitoring the skies for signs of enemy aircraft," explains Alistair. "From his post overlooking the Forth road and rail bridge, he saw the German planes coming in to bomb targets along the River Clyde."
Alistair's labour of love in bringing the Portadown monitoring base back to its former glory was part homage to his grandfather and part nostalgic journey down memory lane to his childhood in Cottage Road in Lurgan.
"I remember there was a little green concrete box behind the house, and at weekends people would turn up and go down the hole, but it was years and years before I found out what its purpose had been," Alistair explains.
After discovering the bunkers on the internet, the quantity surveyor became fascinated with the idea of setting off on a quest to find all 58 monitoring posts in Northern Ireland.
They weren't all easy to track down, but the one at Portadown was hard to miss - even though the path leading to it was covered with grass and cows were grazing around it.
"The hatch was lying wide open and I went down," Alistair remembers. "Everything inside it was gone, apart from a few papers lying about the place. I got the fever there and then.
"I went to see the landowner and he was happy for me to restore the bunker. I paid him a peppercorn rent of £1 a year and I started to track down all the equipment for the monitoring post, which has a two-room operational area and living quarters."
During the Cold War, members of the ROC used to take part in training exercises at the bunker, but in the event of a nuclear war the plan was for three observers to go down below for the duration of the attacks, leaving their families above ground.
The observers wouldn't have known what was happening to their loved ones, but the chances were that the bunker would have become their own tomb, because their chances of coming out alive would have been slim.
Alistair scoffs at the notion that he's a survivalist and that the bunker would be a refuge after a nuclear attack.
"I would not be coming here if there was a nuclear war," he says. "I have restored the bunker to bring back the fear of the Cold War to people... to show them how stupid the whole thing was.
"I would have preferred to have died at the start of the attacks, rather than come up again after them. It was recently revealed that the Russians had 10 targets here, and their six-megaton devices were thousands of times bigger than the ones that wiped out Hiroshima and Nagasaki, so 70% of the population of Northern Ireland would have been killed instantly or would have died shortly afterwards."
During his open days at the museum, Alistair lays it on the line for his visitors, leaving them in no doubt about the awesome power of nuclear explosions. "If you'd been standing in the centre of Belfast, for example, you'd have had a blastwave travelling at about 5,000 miles an hour, spreading out in all directions," he explains to me.
"You would have had the heatflash as well, and anything you had been wearing would have instantly burst into flames. Your body would have turned into charcoal, and after the blastwave hit, you would have turned to dust. Anything that could have combusted would have combusted - glass, copper and the roads would have melted, and power lines would have exploded."
And the 'lucky' few who would have survived would not have been so lucky at all. "What sort of life would have been left for them?" asks Alistair. "There would have been no electricity, no light, no nothing, and then the black rain would have come and there would have been the remains of millions of dead bodies to deal with, too. I pray that a nuclear war will never happen. We would all be doomed."
Nowadays, there are no early-warning systems in operation across the UK, and the Government stood down the ROC decades ago, in 1991.
A massive underground bunker in Ballymena, which would have been used by the authorities as a nerve centre to co-ordinate the running of a post-blast Northern Ireland, was put up for sale recently.
A number of proposals have emerged for the future of that bunker, and Alistair has been approached for his views on how the building could be turned into a living museum. "I love the place - it still has all the names of the various departmental heads, like scientific advisers, on the doors," he explains.
"The information going into Ballymena would have been coming from Thiepval Barracks, where officials would have been getting their data from the monitoring posts, such as the one here in Portadown.
"(The) Ballymena (site) would be a fantastic museum. There's an amazing amount of interest in the Cold War to tap into. And I think we really should be doing more to remember the past, which, in many cases, is right on people's doorsteps, but they know nothing about it.
"When people in this part of the world hear about the Cold War, they automatically think about America and Russia and wonder what Northern Ireland had to do with it. They don't realise that there would have been nuclear weapons stored here.
"The infrastructure was huge, with RAF bases at places like Ballykelly, Bishopscourt and Aldergrove. There's also a half-built nuclear bunker beside what is now City of Derry airport."
Alistair is still receiving more and more artefacts for his museum in Portadown from former members of the ROC. One poster he has acquired warns volunteers to be on their guard for strange cars spying on their bunkers.
Spookily, as Alistair and I leave the bunker, which is classified as monitoring post number 45 for the ROC's 31 Belfast Group, a van drives up the Derrylettiff Road with the letters 'SPIE' emblazoned on its panels.
We needn't have worried. It turned out that SPIE is the name of a firm building Northern Ireland Electricity's new high-voltage network across the province.
The Portadown post will be open to the public as part of the European Heritage Open Day on Saturday, September 10. For booking, email: firstname.lastname@example.org