A new secret spy base where hundreds of UK agents work to keep the country safe has welcomed people inside to see what goes on. The offices are based in an anonymous 1970s block, and sit above a barbers and a Greggs, with an entrance next to a Chinese restaurant.
The Manchester Evening News was among the first to see inside the new offices, which opened at the end of 2019. The part of the building opened up to the public has the same security rating as most government buildings.
Heron House is home to signals intelligence agency GCHQ (Image: Vincent Cole – Manchester Evening News)
Security checks are still required to get in, but with its open plan design, glass walled meeting rooms, grey sofas and plywood panelling it could double up as a trendy coffee shop, reports MEN. The space means the agency can host things like school visits, meetings and even yoga classes.
While a quick Google search will give you GCHQ's Manchester address, there's no signs outside advertising their presence.
GCHQ's Manchester office includes a space designed to encourage more public engagement (Image: Vincent Cole – Manchester Evening News)
Inside Heron House the windows and walls have enhanced security measures for protection against a number of threats.
And while part of the building may be fairly open and accessible, two other floors are classified 'top secret'. There spies – the actual figure is not disclosed, but we're told they number in the hundreds – work on the same intelligence missions as their colleagues at GCHQ headquarters in Cheltenham.
These include defending the UK against potential cyber-attacks and digital surveillance of terrorists and organised crime.
"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," said Liz, GCHQ's deputy director for Manchester, who doesn't give her surname for security reasons.
"When the organisation was thinking about where next and some of the challenges we face, Manchester seemed like a really good bet because you've got really strong universities, lots 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 wouldn't be drawn on the exact nature of the work being done in Manchester, other than to say staff were 'working on all the missions' including 'hostile states, terrorism and serious and organised crime'.
GCHQ also has branches in Scarborough, Bude in Cornwall and London.
"There's a bit of mystique around what we do, but this gives us a chance to demystify some of it," said Liz. "We can't really expect people to trust us and want to come and work here unless we give them a bit more."
On Monday 60 children visited for a lesson in code-breaking. It was part of the launch of the agency's new book Puzzles for Spies, which includes hundreds of puzzles based on languages, engineering, codebreaking, analysis, maths, coding and cyber security skills.
For the launch GCHQ has teamed up with children's mental health charity. Place2Be. The charity's chief exec Catherine Roche said: "Problem-solving encourages creativity, ingenuity, and imagination – which are all vital skills for growing and thriving into adulthood. Helping children to solve problems for themselves encourages them to develop resilience in the face of adversity, and helps them to become more confident, independent and successful in their own right."