Set atop barren cliffs, during calm weather the great white domes and dishes of GCHQ Bude sit in silence broken only by seabirds. But high perimeter fences isolate the satellite ground station from curious coastal walkers; scouring nearby footpaths, security cameras monitor and record. For while the site’s visible from miles away, it’s also Cornwall’s most secret place.
Between Morwenstow and a base run by its American counterpart, the National Security Agency, by the 1980s global interception was achievable of transmissions across the INMARSAT land, sea and air mobile satellite communications system. But as the various satellite networks grew and their broadcast rates soared, so the listeners’ equipment and capacity had repeatedly to be upgraded. To preserve a truly global intercept capability, international co-operation became essential; more bases were built around the world by the allied powers. At Morwenstow a third giant dish appeared, and during July 2001 the site became known as GCHQ Bude.
Meanwhile, beyond Bude's security fencing there’s still some evidence of the RAF's wartime presence: at the cliff edge, concrete plinths that once mounted artillery and the target-aircraft catapult; the old mobile radar ramp; pillboxes dotted around. Passing cliff-path walkers are able to inspect the relics, but today’s base wouldn’t take at all kindly to close examination. The activities of GCHQ Bude remain as opaque as the sudden sea mists which roll in along the Cornish coast, but one thing’s for sure: they’ve got your number.