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Hanslope Park: Home of Britain’s ‘real-life Q division’

The Buckinghamshire haunt of spooks, BOFHs and boffins

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

Geek's Guide to Britain Hanslope Park sits just outside the small, quiet North Buckinghamshire village of Hanslope. I grew up there, and the Park and its occupants would always be mentioned by conversing grown-ups in suddenly hushed tones. Who might be listening? Other villagers were quietly pointed out with the words: “You see him? He works at the Park, he does.”

Today the site might well fail to attract the attention of passing motorists, but in the 1970s and 1980s, while you couldn’t see much of the facility itself thanks to the thick growth of trees and bushes that surround it, the plantations of sinister masts that dotted the nearby fields rather gave the game away. They’re mostly gone now, pulled down in the 1990s to be replaced by more sophisticated spy satellite pick-ups.

Hanslope Park

Hanslope Park from above. Note the sole remaining aerial in the bottom right of the picture
Source: Google/Digital Globe

Hanslope Park, once the scene of notorious murder and suicide, has long been home to spooks - and, it’s claimed, not just of the corporeal kind.

The site is now officially named Her Majesty's Government Communications Centre (HMGCC), but the Park and the small, undistinguished stately home at its centre were acquired after World War II by the Foreign Office, which soon established a listening post there. The locals widely believed the station was tuning in to Russian transmissions, perhaps giving us an advantage over other Britons should the balloon ever go up. There was talk of nuclear bunkers and a secret way from the Park to the the M1 motorway, which passes by just a kilometre away.

The all-seeing eyes of Google Earth or Bing satellite photography reveals no such roadway. Unless, of course, it’s underground...

Curiously, it was reported in the 1980s that a chap who claimed his car had broken down on the M1 late one night, was picked up trying to enter Hanslope Park. He said he had made a beeline for the facility’s bright yellow sodium lights in the hope of finding assistance. He would have had better luck - and less tired legs - if he had tried either of the two farmhouses between the motorway and the Park.

Diplomatic wireless

During the 1970s, locals who worked at the Park might, when asked, mutter something about the Foreign and Commonwealth Office - no one had thought of the ‘I could tell you but I’d have to kill you’ gag back then - a line that suggested they were really little more than clerks from the days of Empire. It was called the Diplomatic Wireless Service, and it wasn’t hard to imagine messages coming in announcing coups d’état and incidents in far-flung capitals.

Not that the intelligence community connections were unknown, even if then not officially confirmed. Hanslope is only 20 miles or so from the south Milton Keynes town of Bletchley, home to a better-known Park with a shady wartime history.

As the HMGCC itself puts it, “We’re a short drive from the thriving towns of Milton Keynes and Northampton. We also benefit from good transport links, with Milton Keynes station only 35 minutes to London Euston on a fast train”. The local church, St James - described by architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner as one of the finest spires in the country, and easy to locate at ground level for many miles around - forms part of the agency’s logo. It is “involved in fascinating, challenging work of national importance”.

Or, as the Guardian newspaper once put it, a place “where teams of scientists – real-life versions of Q, the fictional boffin of the James Bond films – devise technical aids for the Foreign Office, MI5 and MI6”.

According to the Foreign Office, Hanslope Park maintains a high-definition “secure video conferencing link” called Secview with Downing Street and the Foreign Office.

Hanslope Park main entrance

As much as you can see before the guards arrive: Hanslope Park’s main entrance

Even the HMGCC admits its boffins “work across the whole product lifecycle, from research and design to development and production. We deliver bespoke communications systems, applications, hardware and software to meet our customer’s unique requirements”. Hanslope Park is, the organisation that runs it modestly claims, “a creative powerhouse and centre of excellence”.

“Across the site, there are a number of labs and teams made up of professionals from a wide variety of backgrounds, forming a melting pot of ideas where innovation is the main objective. From Software Developers and Mechanical Engineers to systems specialists, electronic experts and even a fully functioning manufacturing plant, we have a huge range of professionals on board - including our vital corporate and support people.”

HMGCC’s own "come and work for us" video shows parabolic satellite uplink antennas, banks of black supercomputers and, this being Blighty, a canteen selling tea and buns. The video shows the Park’s mod cons - including a gym for the staff, or perhaps trainee spies - and no sign of the 18th Century manor house, once home to Squire of Hanslope Park Edward Hanslope Watts in the late 19th Century and early 20th.

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