The Secret Side of Sleepy North Devon and Cornwall

Barrel Rock Bude
Barrel Rock at the end of the Breakwater on Bude beach, used to guide ships into the harbour.

North Devon and Cornwall, a sleepy area that is full of history of its fishing and farming past. Now with a bustling influx of tourists every summer to enjoy the museums, adventure parks and sunny beaches. Just getting back from a holiday there in Appledore It has all these things, but the one big thing I noticed was the large presence of military sites in the area. Just visible from Appledore is RMB Chivenor, a big marine base, as well as a Babcock site that has built military ships for over 160 years. Just down the road is a selection of old RAF radar stations and airfields, one of which is now a top secret GCHQ site that could be listening to a large portion of the world’s internet traffic.

View From Bude
A view of one of the satellite dishes at GCHQ Bude taken from Bude beach. Credit: me.

On a day trip to Bude in Cornwall, after the customary ice cream we took a walk down the beach and were drawn to the Breakwater. More specifically a big rocky section at the end of the breakwater called Barrell Rock. Named so because of the barrel on the end of a long pole used to guide ships around the dangerous rocky breakwater. It gave a great view of the beach and bude itself,  and the chapel said to be where Bude originated. One thing I did notice when looking north up the coastline was what looked like a satellite dish, and that got me wondering. Then I remembered we passed a single signpost on the way pointing to GCHQ. It turns out that just 6km up the coastline is GCHQ Bude.

A view of GCHQ Bude
A great View of GCHQ from the coastal path. Credit: Paul Phillips

Nestled between the small villages of Morwenstow and Coombe, during the second World War the Air Force built RAF Cleave. It was designed to house target and target support aircraft for the firing ranges along the north cornwall coast. After the war it then stayed in government hands, with little use. Then in the 1960’s it started changing. The main reason: in 1962 a satellite receiving station was established at Goonhilly Downs, mainly for linking with television satellites, it also carried large amounts of telecommunications data. A surprisingly important piece of satellite communications infrastructure it has played a key role in communications events such as the Muhammad Ali fights, the Olympic Games, the Apollo 11 Moon landing, and 1985’s Live Aid concert. Being only 100km south of RAF Cleave signals could be intercepted by placing receiver dishes on the grounds. Initially to intercept mainly signals from Intelsat, a commercial communications satellite, the construction of the station began in 1969, with two 27m dishes, with smaller dishes coming after. Initially signposted as CTOS Morwenstow (CTOS standing for Composite Signals Organisation Station), in 2001 when a third large dish was built the station was renamed GCHQ Bude.

RAF Cleave gun emplacement
Remains of an RAF Cleave gun emplacement, with the modern satellite dishes of GCHQ Bude behind

GCHQ Bude has come under fire many times because of the ethical implications of the work conducted there. Even as early as 1963 they could have been tapping the data classed as suspicious from the TAT-3 telephone undersea cable. There are cable landing points at Widemouth bay that connect the UK to the USA, just 10 km south of the Cleave camp. It was also featured in a BBC Horizons documentary where it is claimed that all the data that goes through that the internet landing cable at Skewjack farm in Cornwall (formerly RAF Sennen) is sent on to GCHQ Bude for processing. The Fiber-Optic Link Around the Globe cable that surfaces there is estimated to see around 25% of all internet traffic, just think about that for a second. In terms of satellite installations at GCHQ Bude there are twenty one satellite antennae of differing sizes, three of which having a diameter of 30m. In theory these dishes could cover all the main frequency bands. Based on the position, some have theorised that they are oriented towards satellites of the INTELSAT, Intersputnik, and INMARSAT communications networks over the Atlantic Ocean, Africa, and the Indian Ocean, as well as towards the Middle East and mainland Europe. As well as this in 2011 a torus antenna was installed which is able to receive signals from up to thirty five satellites at once.

GCHQ Bude facing East
A wide image of GCHQ Bude facing east with a sunset in the background.

This post is not about my opinion about what they do at GCHQ but I find it a very interesting place, with a serious amount of technology involved, but they have been in the news a lot. A report made public in 2001 showed concerns by some EU member states that CTOS Morwenstow was involved in industrial espionage. It is claimed that the Intelligence Services Act 1994 grants GCHQ access to anything that emitted an electromagnetic signal, so pretty much any electronic device. In 2011 the Guardian reported how GCHQ attempted to gain access to the Blackberry Messenger service for the use of police to trawl for riot organisers. In 2013 the Guardian reported a large amount of information about GCHQ Bude leaked by Edward Snowden. It talked about operation Tempora, where GCHQ tapped into undersea cables and kept the data for up to 30 days to assess and analyse it. A further article reported that it was eavesdropping on charities, German government buildings, the Israeli Prime Minister, and an EU commissioner. There are plenty of other similar articles out there with similar overtones, and about GCHQ in general. The thing I found crazy is that even though trespassing on the site is its own law, you can walk fairly close when going along the coastal path.

RAF Hartland Sign
A sign at one of the old radar stations at RAF Hartland Point, now used by the aviation authority. Credit: Exal66 on derelictplaces.co.uk

When researching this subject it can get into a deep pit of conspiracy, but the thing I enjoy the most is looking at old military installations. Just up the coast from Bude in the northwestern point of Devon is Hartland Point. We visited Hartland Quay (close by) and it is highly recommended for the views. Apart from the hundreds of shipwrecks along that coastline, a noticeable part of the view is the old radar station at the point. During World War 2 that was controlled by RAF Hartland Point. The foundations of the big type 11, 13 and 14 radars can still be seen around the radar station at the point. Great information about the radar systems and some more information about the base can be found here. There is also an old air raid shelter, and a former station building that has been commandeered by the coastguard. The radar that can be seen nearby (the spherical one) is used by the UK Civil Aviation Agency for air traffic control. A user on derelictplaces.co.uk shows some great images of his walk around the site.

RAF Hartland base
The base of a radar from WW2 at what was RAF Hartland point. The aviation authorities new radar is in the background. Credit Exal66 on derelictplaces.co.uk

The final place I want to mention is one that is very noticable to anyone who has called the Tarka Trail between Fremington and Bideford. It passes right across the river from the historical Appledore shipbuilders. With many owners and names in the 160 years it has been active, it is now owned and operated by Babcock international Ltd, the same company who run Devonport. The dockyard has built more than 350 vessels in its lifetime, including small and medium-sized military craft, as well as superyachts, bulk carriers, ferries and oil/LPG industry vessels. While we were there a Norwegian military ship was being worked on. Some of the most notable ships include HMS Echo, HMS Enterprise, HMS Scott, and RRS Charles Darwin. A trip down the Tarka Trail is highly recommended, especially by bike.

Appledore Babcock
The shipbuilders at Appledore, now owned and run by Babcock international, visible by the Tarka Trail.

Thank you for reading, take a look at my other posts if you are interested in space, electronics, or military history. If you are interested, follow me on Twitter to get updates on projects I am currently working on.


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