A super-secret look inside GCHQ’s Manc spy headquarters Danny Jones
The Manc recently had the privilege of looking around GCHQ’s Manchester headquarters to meet the real-world spies, data analysts and security experts keeping us all safe. It was awesome.
For anyone unaware, GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters) is the British intelligence agency that helps look after our nation’s security both at home and abroad, and back in 2019, the national security organisation set up its Manchester base in Heron House just off Albert Square.
Just last month, we were invited along to meet some of these silent heroes in person as part of a private and unprecedented press day, opening up their doors to select members of the public for the first time.
Invited inside the high-security facility along with around 60 kids from Whalley Range‘s St Margaret’s Primary School, we spent the day cracking codes, being upstaged by children much smarter than us and trying not to sweat through our clothes from nervousness.
Welcome to Manc spy HQ
After being escorted through a strict entry procedure and chaperoned upstairs to the only floor we were allowed on, we were met by an admittedly unsuspecting team of people that you would never twig as working in espionage. It quickly put us at ease.
We’re not joking when we say there were areas of this place we weren’t allowed anywhere near and even staff members have to their leave belongings behind before entering. However, what we did get to see was seriously impressive.
As well as immediate sights like the small drones being controlled by employees who could only give us their first names, we were also welcomed into a large briefing room with a high-tech display with screens that stretched across an entire wall and genuinely resembled something from a Bond flick.
We then did our best to keep up with some of Britain’s brightest young brains, working through a series of code-cracking exercises inspired by the GCHQ’s new Puzzles for Spies book.
Making moves in Manchester
So why Manchester? Well, we spoke to Deputy Director Liz (yes, that’s all you’re getting) and she explained numerous appealing factors that drew the over-100-year-old institution to the city.
First off, they noted that not only is Manchester one of the fastest-growing cities in the UK and, indeed Europe, but thanks to city centre development and the likes of the ever-expanding Media City, Manchester has become a true “digital hub”.
She also went on to state the roadmap for people joining the intelligence service is starting to change and while people used to join the likes of their Cheltenham HQ “at the age of 18 and stay for 40 years”, the demographic is changing and they want to seek out more diversity.
Part of the reason they invited the kids along is they wanted to show it’s more about “aptitude and skills, not just getting a degree”. It’s not just about reaching out further but adapting the recruitment process.
They also believe that as well as the uni and tech culture acting as a great feeder for GCHQ, the fact that Manchester is a huge melting pot of people from all walks of life will help them “evolve” as a group and they hope to start soaking up “untapped talent all across the North West“.
What’s it like being a spy?
It’s a question most people have wondered at one time or another — usually after a trip to the cinema or watching Line of Duty — but we wanted to know exactly how close to the movies working for GCHQ is and, thankfully, many of the people were more than happy to oblige.
Although most said being somewhat evasive becomes second nature when once you accept the job, it really is only your immediate family that you can reveal their roles to and even then, they can’t really divulge what they do on a day-to-day basis.
Again, it’s worth reminding that, for all intents and purposes, these lot are spies and they genuinely have to keep up the lie. We especially enjoyed so many of them simply telling their friends they “work in marketing”.
On the other hand, despite having to withhold details even between certain colleagues with different clearance levels, Liz insists that they “don’t tend to moan about the nuts and bolts” of the job but things like the commute and how the price of Greggs keeps going up. Their office is above Greggs, for context.
She also admitted it’s “pretty exciting” to be able to do things that would be considered illegal for most people to do, not to mention immensely cool to be able to tell your kids “mums a spy”. Fair.
What are GCHQ working on right now?
Beyond trying to reveal “the human side” behind these otherwise faceless people, demystifying espionage and intelligence work, as well as trying to earn some trust through increased transparency, GCHQ also gave some insight as to what exactly it is they’re looking into at present.
Of course, we couldn’t talk about national security without asking them about Putin and the Russian invasion, which they confirmed is obviously top of the priority list, declaring the support of Ukraine as their “biggest task at the moment”.
They also went on to explain that cyberattacks from the likes of China are also of concern, adding that they are carrying out counter-terrorism, software development and sweeps, as well as various routine security checks on a regular basis.
Liz also went on to assure that GCHQ as a whole is “working on all the missions, covering all the hostile states and pretty much covering everything you can think of”. It was genuinely a relief to know that we’re in safe hands.
If you think a career at GCHQ Manchester might be something you’re interested in, you can check out their vacancies down below and you also can also buy their Puzzles for Spies book HERE.
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Peter Kay Live at Manchester AO Arena – times, tour dates, tickets and more Daisy Jackson
Peter Kay will finally make his long-awaited return to the stage this week with a massive UK tour.
His AO Arena dates begin on Friday 2 December and will run all the way through to 2025 (yes, really).
Peter received widespread praise when he announced his tour and promised to keep ticket prices low.
He said: “It’s good to get back to what I love doing best, stand-up comedy and if there’s ever a time people need a laugh it’s now.
“And with the cost of living at an all-time high, ticket prices are starting from £35. The same price they were on my previous tour in 2010. ”
But naturally, after he largely disappeared from public appearances several years ago, his return drove insane demand.
If you’re lucky enough to have bagged a ticket, here’s what you need to know.
What are stage times for Peter Kay at AO Arena?
As usual with the AO Arena, doors will open a bit before the show begins, and fans are advised to allow plenty of time to get through security and to find their seats.
The doors to the venue will open around 6.30pm.
Peter Kay’s actual show will start at 8pm prompt.
What dates will Peter Kay play at the AO Arena?
A lot of dates. Many many dates. Dates as far as the eye can see. Here they are:
- 2-3 December 2022
- 22-23 September 2023
- 19-20 October 2023
- 5-6 November 2023
- 1 December 2023
- 26-27 January 2024
- 9-10 February 2024
- 8-9 March 2024
- 5-6 April 2024
- 17-18 May 2024
- 14-15 June 2024
- 26-27 July 2024
- 23-24 August 2024
- 20-21 September 2024
- 18-19 October 2024
- 1-2 November 2024
- 29-30 November 2024
- 20-21 December 2024
- 10-11 January 2025
- 8 February 2025
- 5 April 2025
- 17 May 2025
- 21 June 2025
- 25 July 2025
Can I still get tickets and how much are they?
Ooooh you might struggle if you want to go any time soon.
The demand for Peter Kay’s return was so high that several ticketing platforms crashed and he added tonnes of new dates to try and cater to all his fans.
There are still tickets available for later shows all the way in 2025 if you’re happy to wait that long.
Your best bet for an earlier date is to keep an eye on official resale sites, and be careful that you’re getting a genuine deal.
Tickets start from £35 and go all the way up to £50, £65 and £135 – you can buy yours from See Tickets here.
Seating plan for AO Arena Manchester
According to Ticketmaster, this will be the seating plan for the AO Arena for Peter Kay’s gigs.
It’s a fully seated tour but every block is set to be in use.
Venue security and requirements
The show is strictly for people aged 15+.
The AO Arena has a few strict policies to keep gig-goers safe, so make sure to check entry requirements carefully before you travel.
For example, only one small bag per person is allowed, and bags like backpacks, travel cases and laptop bags are not permitted inside the arena.
All bags are scanned on entry to check for prohibited items like laser pens, flares, projectiles, weapons, drugs and alcohol, and even selfie sticks.
Featured image: Publicity picture