A Jaunt into the West Country Part 3
You’d think Britain’s centre for secrets would be, well, secret. But the first thing you see as you drive into Cheltenham on the A40 is “The Doughnut”; the huge, space age structure that houses GCHQ or Government Communications Headquarters, to give it its full title. I wanted to take a photograph for the blog but didn’t. It wasn’t fear of a bunch of spooks descending upon me to beat me senseless and rip the inner workings out of my camera. No, it was simply that there was no-where to park on the main road. It is a hugely impressive building, though one wonders just how difficult it would be to disguise it from attack. From space it must appear as a graduated target with extra points for hitting the jam in the middle.
As a country we’re not sure how we feel about GCHQ. Are they there to protect us or to snoop on us? Which way are they looking? Just how powerful are their instruments? They can obviously read this, if they want to, but are they actually monitoring it as I write? Are they able, as has become the urban myth, to watch us through the lens at the top of our screens, even when it is switched off, and do they use this to learn our passwords or just to try and catch us out at inopportune and compromising moments?
Playing word association games with friends brought up “sinister” as the most popular word to sum up GCHQ. “Frightening, ominous and disturbing” weren’t too far behind. If you play the same game with the words “Bletchley Park” you get: “heroes, code-breakers, enigma machines, Alan Turing and shortened-the-war”. Yet they are essentially the same place. Both are Spy Central. The Buckinghamshire Mansion was originally requisitioned in 1938 to house less than 100 men (MI6 was almost exclusively male at that time). By the end of the war more than 10,000 people were working there. The site wasn’t suited to so many. They had out-grown both the original buildings and the famous temporary huts, and there was no-where for them to live their lives outside of their duties. Intelligent people require a stimulating environment and Bletchley Park was rapidly being absorbed into Milton Keynes. With Victory in Europe the search began to find a place to re-locate. With the on-set of the Cold War, (and the encroachment of concrete cows) the need took on a degree of urgency.
What was required was a new home that satisfied an exacting wish-list. It needed to be
- A single site that could house the entire listening operation and a very big work-force.
- About 100 miles from London with good communications links to the capital. London itself was seen as too vulnerable to attack.
- A large town that could attract and absorb a large, highly educated work-force and provide suitable facilities for culture, relaxation, shopping and leisure.
- Land that already belonged to the government, preferably with pre-existing office accommodation.
- A place that had ready laid telegraphic cables.
- A place that would allow expansion.
- A place where there wasn’t a great deal of industry or other activity that could quickly absorb the capacity to communicate with the outside world and lure away the workers.
Serious consideration was given to Oxford and Cambridge, The Bedford/Leighton Buzzard area, Norwich, Liverpool, Manchester, Shrewsbury, Exeter and Bath.
One by one they were ruled out. Exeter a little too far from the capital, Shrewsbury not big enough to absorb the work-force, Norwich too near a large number of RAF stations that might require prior use of communication lines and also attract enemy attack. Oxford and Cambridge were ruled out as having too many other pulls on the academics and Liverpool and Manchester because industrial development would result in too much competition for jobs.
Cheltenham had good road and rail links, was a large attractive town that already had a high percentage of graduates and the facilities to absorb a whole lot more. It had housed huge American bases during the war including the headquarters of The Services of Supply (SOS). When these re-located to France after the D-Day landings they left behind government owned land, office accommodation and miles of underground communication cables. The original move of American forces from London to Cheltenham in 1942 was planned as absolutely top secret. Special trains were laid on from Paddington and to avoid anyone accidentally getting on the wrong train, Paddington station staff had helpfully plastered the carriages with signs that read “US Forces to Cheltenham”. I suppose this is in-keeping with housing the secret services in the most prominent building for miles.
Modern day Cheltenham has four claims to fame; as the country’s centre of spying, as a glorious Regency spa town at the foot of the Cotswolds, as the centre of national hunt (fences) horse racing and the home of some of Britain’s leading cultural festivals. 110,000 people call Cheltenham home and there are almost exactly as many of them who work for GCHQ as there are who don’t work at all (6,200).
It had long been an ambition to go to the Cheltenham Festival in March and enjoy watching the very best of national hunt racing. Huge crowds are drawn from all corners of the country and almost as many pack the ferries from Ireland. For reasons that I have never quite understood the more high profile the horse racing event, the higher percentage of out and out drunkenness. People don’t get squiffy at the races they get absolutely pie-eyed, off their faces, pissed; and it isn’t a particularly lovely sight.
Whether it be Royal Ascot, Goodwood, The Ebor meeting at York, the Grand national at Aintree or the festival here in the Cotswolds you cannot get away from people who seem to leave sense and dignity behind at the gates. Enormous effort and considerable expense gets poured into dressing for the occasion and then additional sums of money go into putting sufficient over-priced beverage into the stomach to spew over the green sward. Drunkenness is no respecter of class and background at the racecourse. You’ll find drunks in Alexander McQueen and Givenchy gowns and you’ll find young women staggering on heels from New Look and dresses from TK Maxx. With drunken men there is a tendency to increase boorishness for every hundred pounds spent on a suit.
These days you’ll find me watching my horse racing on the rails at Cartmel and Worcester and rarely watching the classics at more celebrated racecourses. I love the sport and have been known to down a pint or two in my time but I’ve always found a day at the races goes better without huge displays of public drunkenness.
I still watch The Festival on the telly though. It’s one of the delights of being freed from the working week. Here we get a grand sweep over vast crowds in a delightful setting and detailed information and close-up views of the finest horses in training. I like the way Channel 4 present racing, I like the way they find insiders with the ability to express their knowledge articulately while retaining the vocabulary and ethos of the sport. I rarely bet on horses but have measured out my years on gold cup winners. Arkle was my first sporting hero; his annual battles with Mill House and Stallbridge Colonist are my earliest sporting memories alongside the Clay/Liston fights. In recent years I’ve cheered home Dawn Run and Burrough Hill Lad, Desert Orchid, Kauto Star and Best Mate. I even named a car I owned after Garrison Savannah when I found the registration plates matched. I sold it when the vet’s bills got too high. Our friends in the north were the great aunt and uncle of trainer Michael Dickinson and when he saddled the first five to cross the winning line in 1983 I almost felt a sense of personal pride and would have been thoroughly ecstatic if I hadn’t had my money riding on Wayward Lad (the one that finished third).
I find my hotel, park up and wander happily up and down the streets of a town that has more than its fair share of attractions without ever quite selling those attractions to me. But what do I matter? The people look affluent and contented on a May Bank Holiday. They move around in couples and seem to be obliged to keep inside age bands. Older people sip cappuccinos in the many coffee bars, middle aged people are at the jazz Festival and the young, as young are won’t to do, are displaying in prominent places. Cheltenham isn’t short of attractive parks and avenues in which to go parading.