Visiting Greggs in Manchester city centre for a vegan sausage roll, one would not imagine they are meters away from a top secret spy base.
Through a glass door next to a Chinese restaurant on Albert Square, lies the office of GCHQ, the UK’s intelligence, security an cyber agency.
Working alongside MI5 and MI6, its heritage goes back to the infamous Bletchley Park, where codebreakers helped wartime intelligence efforts.
The hi-tech Manchester headquarters only opened at the end of 2019, but not a lot has been shared about what is happening inside since then.
A quick Google search will give you the agency’s address but there are no signs outside advertising its presence.
With its open plan design and glass-walled meeting rooms, this could be an office for yet another start-up.
But security checks are still required to get in, and the windows and walls boast enhanced security measures for protection against a number of potential threats.
The space means the agency can host things like school visits, meetings and even yoga classes.
Just last week, 60 kids from St Margaret’s primary school in Whalley Range paid a visit for a lesson in codebreaking.
While part of the building may be fairly open and accessible, two other floors are classified ‘top secret’.
There, spies work on the same intelligence missions as their colleagues at GCHQ’s doughnut-shaped headquarters in Cheltenham.
Liz, GCHQ’s deputy director for Manchester, who declined to give her surname for security reasons, said: ‘The pace of technological change at the moment is so fast that the old ways of doing it just aren’t going to cut it anymore.
‘When GCHQ was thinking about where next and some of the challenges we face, Manchester seemed like a really good bet because you have strong universities, a lot of tech start-ups and some of the really big tech firms.
‘In Manchester we have been given a bit of licence to experiment. We are able to work here with industry in a way that you just can’t elsewhere.
‘And the opportunity of being here just opens us up. We’re right in the city centre. This way we can be a little bit more friendly and invite people in.’
Liz refused to comment on the precise nature of the work being done in the city.
She said staff were ‘working on all the missions’ including ‘hostile states, terrorism and serious and organised crime’.
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