back to article INSIDE GCHQ: Welcome to Cheltenham's cottage industry

For staff at the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in Cheltenham, there’s an air of Fight Club about the place. The first rule about GCHQ is you don’t talk about GCHQ. It’s a well observed tradition, even though there are road signs and a bus route directing you to this highly secret establishment, the nerve centre …

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  1. groovyf
    Thumb Up

    I see what you did there...

    "The polite response to the latter request was that pictures would be considered on condition the article could be viewed before publication. That's against our editorial policy, but chances are they've done that already."

    Subtle.

  2. TeeCee Gold badge
    Coat

    "you might wonder if it inspired Steve Jobs’ plans for a new circular Apple building"

    Actually I think they're both inspired by something rather earlier.

    "One ring to rule them all......."

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: "you might wonder if it inspired Steve Jobs’ plans for a new circular Apple building"

      Maybe it's simply inspired by an arsehole. Older still. That would suit Apple.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Big Brother

        Re: "you might wonder if it inspired Steve Jobs’ plans for a new circular Apple building"

        Which is ahead, in terms of amount of personal information held on everybody: GCHQ, Apple ...or Google?

    2. ecofeco Silver badge

      Re: "you might wonder if it inspired Steve Jobs’ plans for a new circular Apple building"

      I noticed the same thing.

      Uncanny, innit?

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  4. Gergmchairy

    you forgot to mention RAF Boddington.. an MOD Communications bunker in Barrow - a 'very small' village just outside Cheltenham. According to Wikipedia it was active from 1950 until 2007 under various names - and whose proximity to GCHQ cannot be a co-incidence !

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Barrow & Boddington

      Funny little area, so hidden, quiet little roads between Staverton and the Coombe Hill road. I have walked and cycled around there. Probably the quietest roads in that area, as no logical reason to go there except to go to the villages.

      I have stories but probably not that interesting.

    2. Polyphonic
      Holmes

      Or .......

      The RAF HQ moved out of RAF Innsworth (nearer still to Boddington) at this time and the rest of the personnel archives not long after that :)

    3. Jay Holmes

      9SU(Signals Unit) Boddington, had nothing to do with GCHQ it was more to do with RAF Innsworth (now Imjen Barracks) which was also just down the road in Churchdown. Boddington was the major comms exchange linking various Commcens (Communications Centres) at every camp in the UK and overseas. It was used for the formal messenging systems that were in use by the Armed Forces before email was used for everything.

      (Former TCO (Telecommunications Operator) RAF, worked at both Innsworth and Boddington)

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  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    "I’d be interested to know how the organisation deals with the abundance of smartphones today. Are they banned or is the place more trusting now, I wonder?"

    There are personal lockers outside the outer secure perimeter, into which you must deposit any "external equipment" before you're allowed to sign for your on-site pass.

    AC, because, well....

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Great read, thanks.

    I'm half thinking of applying for an apprenticeship there when they open in the autumn. I'd love to work in that environment.

    Or maybe stating my intention has already voided my application...

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      First rule of fight club is....

      If you are interested in applying don't tell anyone, even your family, it's just easier. Just say it's for an Aerospace company near Gloucester ;-).

      When they "interview" you tell them everything they ask for. Everyone has vices, they just want to know so that you cannot be pressurised. If they think you are lying or find out you did (even a tiny white lie) you will be out as you cannot be trusted. Simple as.

      The pay isn't great but the job security and pension is better than the real world.

      Finally, chances are it's going to be a lot more Basildon Bond than James Bond. Think of it like a "real job" with more paperwork and more inaction. Remember, no one ever got fired for saying "No"; it is the Civil Service after all.

      1. amanfromMars 1 Silver badge

        What delights for the future does the Doughnut have in store/in the pipeline?

        Finally, chances are it's going to be a lot more Basildon Bond than James Bond. Think of it like a "real job" with more paperwork and more inaction. Remember, no one ever got fired for saying "No"; it is the Civil Service after all. … Anonymous Coward Posted Friday 24th May 2013 08:55 GMT

        Methinks, AC, accepting and expecting that sort of mindset to prevail and permeate the intelligence services, has them in their current dire straits positions, with politicking plonkers in suits in the Palace of Westminster and Downing Streets thinking they have a better intelligence with sexed up dossiers which leads, rather than, as we now all surely know all too well, fails spectacularly to deliver anything that is needed for peace and prosperity, harmony and great future development.

        Which sort of puts the heads of intelligence supply on the spot, with one quite reasonably asking why on earth they allowed it to happen on their watch, with serial incompetence and a lack of valuable intelligence the most likely pathetic excuse.

        A highly edutaining article though, Bob Dormon. Most informative. Thanks.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Aerospace company near Gloucester

        Sounds like Dowty

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Aerospace company near Gloucester

          Or Smiths industries - are they still going? It's been 25 years since I worked in Cheltenham.

      3. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        " Just say it's for an Aerospace company near Gloucester ;-)."

        Or: a government agency outside Scarborough :)

      4. Anonymous Coward
        Devil

        Re: more inaction

        That would have suited me. I love inaction almost as much as inertia.

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Memories

    I never worked there but I knew people who did. Including one of my best friends.

    One thing he said was that you are allowed to say your job title, but not your details, he also said the people who said official secrets were normally secretaries and librarians.

    He asked my advice on a few occasions, he worked with electronics and needed some hydraulic advice.

    Harry Bucklands, spent many hours there, stripping out cars for the interesting bits, better trim, replacement engine for my mums car, once left my tools for one minute while I grabbed something, had to rescue them from another person, he got a mouth full!

    Skyfame, this was home to one of the last flying Mosquitos, which was the star of 633 Squadron.

    Anonomous because I would otherwise be easily indentifiable, from this and other posts made with my name. Even mentioning the car make would ID me.

  9. Chairo
    Terminator

    Smartphones

    I’d be interested to know how the organisation deals with the abundance of smartphones today. Are they banned or is the place more trusting now, I wonder?

    A bit off topic, but I think that question could make an interesting article - How do organisations handle camera phones? Are they tolerated? Do you have to put a sticker on the lens? Outright forbidden?

    My experience in this regard is quite mixed. Some customers I visit are surprisingly relaxed, while others are extremely strict and even do body searches when you leave the premises.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: "How do organisations handle camera phones?"

      The most mono-gluteal approach I've seen was $FRENCH_COMPANY, which required camera-phones to be put in a translucent bag, which had a tamper-evident seal. You could still use the phone, but any pictures would be a blurry mess.

      When we left the site, no one checked the seals.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: "How do organisations handle camera phones?"

        Curries/PC world repair center

        Metal detectors at the door, random on the spot searches at least twice a week. Phones are only allowed under extreme circumstances and the IMEI has to be looged before getting through the gates. And dont even think about getting caught with a USB stick. Its a company thats truly paraniod, to the extent that they search the bins outside on reqular basis.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: "Curries/PC world repair center"

          So, it's not that their sales people don't know anything, it's that they are not allowed to tell anyone what they do know?

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Smartphones

      You leave them at the door - actually you leave any electronics (including quartz watches) at the door - at least that's been the case at every sensitive facility I've ever been to. And there are generally one or more nice gentlemen with machine guns to enforce the rule....

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    How some deal with devices

    I've had the pleasure of delivering some kit to the local mil hq and basically had to deposit all electronic devices in a secure locker outside the secure area so I assume it's similar to this.

    No clue why but stuff like this always interests me.

    Very interesting article and I enjoyed reading it a lot - stuff like this keeps bringing me back to el-reg.

    1. Paul_Murphy

      Re: How some deal with devices

      >No clue why but stuff like this always interests me.

      GCHQ et al have been in the security business a long time - they have seen so many tricks and tried so many tactics that it's interesting to see what has survived as a simple, understandable ad effective system to ensure as secure an environment as reasonably possible.

      Having people grow up in a family/ dynasty that takes secrecy as the normal way of doing things is part of the picture, but it's all the physical, technical, psychological and behavioural layers that reinforce each other.

      I guess it's the engineers view of a well-designed system that gets the attention - it is that for me anyway.

      ttfn

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Boffin

    Been there a couple of time for conferences in the outer protected zone. I found the gatehouse staff especially unhelpful.

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Training Edge

    "Yes, I would finally have a crack at Star Trek and get to the Emeritus level, if only I could find a PDP-11 handy."

    http://simh.trailing-edge.com/

  13. AbortRetryFail

    Nostalgia

    A great read, and also a lot of happy memories. I grew up living on Battledown and would regularly cycle Harp Hill and also Aggs Hill up to Cleeve Common. And you're right; Aggs Hill is intense both up and down. :o)

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Nostalgia

      Cleeve

      The hill, I remember doing a 3 figure speed on it going up on a bike, another time at the top with a friend testing his home made car phone. And coasting a car from the top all the way to the traffic lights at Bishops Cleeve.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Nostalgia

        BTW the reasonn I am anon is because the car phone builder was a worker there and it is to protect his ID, and if anyone knew me, they would know who.

        His boot was full of transmitter and receiver, old phone in car, used pulse dialing (no tone then), TX and RX at his parents.

        Then there was the TV transmitter. somewhere there is a tape of me standing on a gate holding the aerial. And we also watched a home video in a pub, another drinker said "He looks like your mate." mentioning our other drinking partner. The thing you get up to when you are young.

  14. Miek
    Linux

    I bet GCHQ Oakley has a room full of lost footballs.

  15. FartingHippo
    Coffee/keyboard

    "anyone can get their balls out and whack them off among the sheep"

    Naughty!

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: "anyone can get their balls out and whack them off among the sheep"

      No that is the Forest of Dean

      1. Polyphonic
        Unhappy

        Re: "anyone can get their balls out and whack them off among the sheep"

        Hey, unfair. We have three golf courses and no sheep on them. Loads in the road, and occasionally my garden, but not the golf course.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: "anyone can get their balls out and whack them off among the sheep"

          Well not all of you just some, I am not naming them, but there were a few oddities, saw a very weird person in a pub you had to go over a disused railway bridge to get to in Redbrook.

          .

          But used to go to The Junction Inn a lot, occasionally the Glasshouse and Red Hart before it got sold off.

  16. Primus Secundus Tertius

    Test the secret ballot

    If you want to vote communist to test the secret ballot, I advise you to vote in person, not by post. There is a preliminary vetting of postal votes which the candidates (I was one) are not allowed to see because it is essentially checking the ID behind the postal vote.

    They are supposed to check only the outer envelope with the voter ID, and not the inner envelope with the actual ballot paper.

    1. Arthur the cat Silver badge

      Re: Test the secret ballot

      I don't know what happens currently, but friends in the generation above me who were involved in invigilating ballot counting(*) during the 60s and 70s have told me that at the end of the count, when all was done and dusted, the small pile of ballot papers for the communist candidate used to be handed over to a nice gentleman from Special Branch for "safe disposal". There have also been cases when people just under eighteen voted and were subsequently prosecuted using their ballot papers as evidence. The number that gets logged in the polling station as you're handed the paper ties you directly to your vote. The ballot is only secret against other people, not the state.

      (*) Ballot counters are often party political activists, and some are prone to adding votes for other parties to their candidate's pile if not watched, hence any sensible party supplies invigilators as well as counters.

      1. J.G.Harston Silver badge

        Re: Test the secret ballot

        "(*) Ballot counters are often party political activists, and some are prone to adding votes for other parties to their candidate's pile if not watched, hence any sensible party supplies invigilators as well as counters."

        No, party activists are specifically *banned* from being ballot counters. The party activists are the count *observers* who (along with everybody else on the outside of the table) are legally banned from touching any of the ballot papers.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Test the secret ballot

        The government receives *all* of the ballot papers and counterfoils so they can certainly check who voted for whom if they care to.

        And according to this, it's common knowledge that they did:

        http://www.guardian.co.uk/notesandqueries/query/0,,-1051,00.html

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Test the secret ballot

      My memories of Cheltenham are almost fifty years old, and largely consist of beautiful buildings, gentile tea rooms, and an excellent bookshop. Against this background, I can't imagine the place having a communist candidate!

  17. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    How about the Golden Valley By Pass?

    Runs straight up to GCHQ from Gloucester.

    Dead straight, great for going fast on. Right next to the Police traffic centre on the big woundabout over the M5.

    So people from that area, what's your record?

    1. AbortRetryFail

      Re: How about the Golden Valley By Pass?

      I wrote a car off on that roundabout in the 90's. Does that count? :)

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: How about the Golden Valley By Pass?

        No but I know of someone who had a chasing car roll on it.

        Idiot in car hassling a bike, bike took that roundabout at speed, car rolled

  18. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I was part of the team that built the doughnut.

    Got to work in just about every possible space in the building.

    The computer hall really is ginormous...

    anonymous for obvious reasons

    1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge
      Holmes

      Re: I was part of the team that built the doughnut.

      "anonymous for obvious reasons"

      You think?

  19. druck Silver badge
    Happy

    Doughnut nav

    I used to fly out of Staverton (Staverton Flying School in the old station commanders hut before it became the flying shack) and the Doughnut was a great navigation reference point, you turned right over the top of it to line up on final for runway 27. It was even more useful at night being lit up and visible for miles, unlike the landing lights which are only visible from head on. People were always amazed that we were allowed to fly over such a sensitive location. Oh and I'll admit to doing Vne along the Golden Valley By Pass, but I'm not saying on or above!

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Doughnut nav

      The Russian equivalent of the building in question allegedly has a large no-flight zone above it. Imagine what could happen if an overflight scared these people....

      When the Russian employees of said building travel into foreign lands, they are allegedly always escorted by security forces who know how to protect people against "interference". You don't want the Goose Which Lays Golden Eggs to lay these eggs into your neighbour's nest, ya know.

  20. Syntax Error
    Thumb Down

    GCHQ - Just

    Shut the place down.... What a waste of money. Don't do anything useful.... Self-justifying organization GCHQ !!

    The Register is getting more like a front for the MOD - blightty -boffins..

    Bring back IT!!!!!

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Stop

      Re: GCHQ - Just

      It's called the Do-Nut. As in "DOes focus the attention of all nuts". Maybe this building is 90% empty and the real workings behind the scenes are done very differently. Maybe the real government is located at hershey's and they communicate by means of choclate paper. Or maybe it's Fox news and CNN.

  21. JB
    Happy

    I grew up in Gloucester and between 2001 and 2007 worked in Chelt, taking the 94 past Benhall every day. It was rather sad seeing the old building disappear and the main building come down, just rather crappy-looking flats go up in their place...at least they kept the trees by the roundabout.

    In 1991 I went for a job interview at Oakley. It was like getting into Colditz: had to bring my birth certificate, was asked a load of questions before being escorted to three different checkpoints before getting into the building where the interview was taking place. It was all one-storey stuff, but I was told later that there was alot more stuff underground. I rather liked the austerity-era decor and all the ancient fixtures and fittings.

    And thank you for mentioning Wadworths 6X, has to be THE best beer in the world!

    1. Zot
      Thumb Up

      Yuck, yeah, those flats look just awful!

      And they seem so tiny from the road.

  22. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    The Doughnut...

    It's a nice building, must say, but I like the one in Harwell more. :-)

    "Emptier" but more fun (how can science not be fun). ;-)

  23. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Doghnut

    I prefer this to the Lego building of the GOSCC (Global Ops Security Control Centre) in Corsham.

  24. goldcd
    Thumb Up

    Just wanted to say - I really enjoyed that article

    Any change of having a tag/category that stuff like this can be grouped in?

    Occasionally stumble across these longer articles, and enjoy them - just suspect I've missed the majority which are hidden in the archives amongst the press-releases etc.

  25. Andus McCoatover
    Windows

    "Finding a Wayne Kerr in the lab. wasn't unusual....'

    I worked for WayneKerr years ago, for 3 months. I quit.

    One of the reasons was the guffaws in customers' reception areas when I told ther receptionist which company I was from....Still, as I'd moved from ARS previously, I should've had a harder skin, I guess...

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: "Finding a Wayne Kerr in the lab. wasn't unusual....'

      There's probably a very un-PC joke about getting hard in ARS just waiting to be probed there but I'm too nice a person...

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: "Finding a Wayne Kerr in the lab. wasn't unusual....'

      Wayne Kerr were on the industrial estate at the end of the road I grew up in, in Chessington.

      At EMI Electronics in 1976, we had a great nickname for the HP Spectrum Analysers. Rectum Paralysers. Security there was good, too. One guy had a photo of a chimpanzee on his pass for months, site security never spotted it, but when MOD Plod came along to do a security check, they did..... Not as if we were working on components of the nuclear deterrent, oh no.

  26. Will Godfrey Silver badge
    Happy

    Wayne Kerr

    Oh how we trainees laughed...

    Oh how bored the instructors looked.

    Great article. Fascinating read. Oh dear, has saying that just put me on a watch list?

    1. Zot
      WTF?

      Re: Wayne Kerr

      There was an actual Wayne Kerr at my school, 1 mile away from said GSHQ!

      Now that's slightly odd.

      Apparently the kids used to laugh at him, not me of course, oh no. ;)

  27. Boris the Cockroach Silver badge
    Boffin

    Reminds

    me of the great days I had working for the MoD in a research facility.

    Seven years of pure learning such as the card games in the compressor bunker, the correct way to make a cup of tea, howto fill out the off site expenses form in such a way that the bean counters would actually approve it (rare.. but it did happen) and 101 other tasks the civil servant does to avoid doing any real work.

    Along with entertaining times of keeping your dad out of your secure building because he's not authorised to come in (that earned me a £10/week rent increase)

    And finally the 20 hr days with 4 hrs overtime when the s*** hit the fan and we actually had to do some work for a change.

    And it is true the bit about having to leave a blank on your CV "Civil servant" is all I'm allowed to put

  28. david 12

    Harry Buckland

    Harry Buckland tells me that "cash payments for scrap metal are no longer legal". And I'm disappointed that I didn't see that in "The Register". You cover theft of comm' equipment, you cover recycling metal, you had a story on" BT, Scotland Yard form copper theft crackdown supersquad" but you seem to have missed this.

  29. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I was there at the same time as you

    Heard the fecker with the bagpipes - check

    Laughed at Wayne Kerr jokes - check

    Ate occasionally in the hideously expensive canteen by the main gate across from the Radio Amateur shack - check

    Our RT group attended GLOSCAT for block release - there was a bloke there who taught Electrical Principles, campest bloke I ever saw.

    Best burger bar ever was the "American Connection" in Albion St, especially after Eve's on a Friday night.

    Happy days.

    1. BozNZ
      Thumb Up

      Re: I was there at the same time as you

      Check, check and double-check

      Check also 4 years in HK - waiting in vain to get seduced by some hot rampant chinese spy totty but I guess I wasnt important enough :-(

      Check also the ridiculous payout for voluntary redundancy in 1994 when loads of awesome engineers and technicians - like me :-) - were paid off as part of some bean-counting exercise. (Some of whom came back in to work the next day as contractors on more pay which always makes me laugh)

      GCHQ - Nothing but fond memories..

      No AC required, it was need to know, and I knew nothing except how to fix PDP and VAX computers..

  30. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Cheltenham is watching you

    This story has turned up in the local rag.

    1. Andus McCoatover
      Windows

      Re: Cheltenham is watching you

      "Local Rag is a good description. Clicking on the link led me to other articles in the sidebar.

      This caught my eye...

      http://www.gloucestershireecho.co.uk/Man-left-brain-damaged-attack-outside-Moo-Moo-s/story-19111392-detail/story.html

      Erm, the relevence of the second photo. Someone, please???

  31. Anonymous Coward
    Headmaster

    "Jenkin’s is a lucky chap"

    He's got a spare apostrophe!

  32. Don Jefe

    Weekends Off?

    In the first picture there seems to be hardly anyone there. There is plenty of parking, but not many cars. Does GCHQ take weekends off? I would have thought the place stayed going full steam round the clock & calendar.

    1. druck Silver badge

      Re: Weekends Off?

      It's deserted on bank holidays too.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Weekends Off?

      Of course, lots of people are support or making things. Not needed to do the day to day stuff.

  33. phuzz Silver badge
    Black Helicopters

    I grew up round that way, and a lot of my friend's parents worked there, (the usual euphemism was "I work for the civil service in Cheltenham"). There's a few local legends not mentioned in the article, take these with a pinch of salt:

    One reason I heard given for the Oakley site being shutdown was that the SAS had been asked to come have a look at the security. They pointed out that it would be easy to blow up Hewlett's reservoir so that the water would flow down the hill and flood the Oakely site.

    There's also always been rumours about the underground parts of the site, certainly the houses around the edge (let out to staff), often have interesting looking vents in their gardens. Allegedly there was a tunnel between the Oakley and Benhall sites that was used to transfer equipment that was too sensitive for the overground roads (even in a covered lorry?).

    I also have fond memories of the fields overlooking Cheltenham, just below the radio masts, but I can't mention *that* story :)

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