Physically, it is most notable for its array of huge, white radomes, which are known locally as the 'golf balls'. This aside, the base is an unprepossessing array of buildings, located within an easy 5 minute drive of affluent Harrogate in North Yorkshire. Naturally, the base is also heavily protected by fencing, security patrols and CCTV. Despite its designation as an RAF base, the naming is purely nominal as the facility is essentially a US operation. In 1997, then Defence Secretary John Reid told parliament that:
"The designation RAF... was simply an administrative change to bring the base into line with other RAF sites made available by the Ministry of Defence to the United States Government"
Originally designed as a radar base, the capabilities of the station were upgraded during the Cold War to monitor and intercept communications from "unfriendly nations". It was during the 1970s that the base started to arouse the suspicions of civilian investigators after it fell under the auspices of the shadowy US National Security Agency in 1966 (although the site had been available to US Forces as far back as 1955).
The NSA is the USA's specialist cryptological division, involved in the interception and analysis of foreign communications. Today, it is commonly depicted in popular culture alongside the CIA as a sinister force within the US security community. In truth, its functions are mainly dry and highly specialist, but remain highly controversial - being the subject of much speculation in terms of both capability and intent. A report published by the Sunday Times in 1998 declared that the base played host to 1400 staff - including physicists, scientists and linguists - plus their families, all of whom live on their base. In addition, a further 370 RAF personnel were said to be stationed at the base.
What the purpose of the facilities and the attendant staff is remains wreathed in secrecy. Officially, the base is engaged in 'communications relay' but that is almost certainly euphemistic, given the security surrounding the base. The base's official site contents itself with the careful disclaimer that: "Tasks are managed in a way that accords with the law, including the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and the Human Rights Act 1998."
An EU investigation into the base found that the US was deploying the capability to eavesdrop on potentially any electronic communication (although the capability does not necessarily mean that the resources exist to actually do so) - the so-called ECHELON system of signals intelligence. Menwith Hill is one of the key pieces of intelligence infrastructure in Europe and perhaps the largest "spy base" in the world.†
Little wonder then that a whole realm of speculation and folklore has built up around the base - making it a focal point for anti-nuclear demonstrators, UFO researchers and political activists alike.
The base was regularly mooted during the eighties and nineties as a key component of the 'star wars' missile defence system that was proposed by US Republican administrations. This hugely controversial project †- which would have given the US the facility to wage war from orbit - never came to fruition.
Perhaps due to these suggestions, Menwith Hill has been subject to many vigils by local campaigners - most notably Yorkshire CND. A colourfully decorated caravan was parked in a layby near the base for many years and was something of a landmark for travellers who regularly used the road that passes by the facility.†
The base's most notorious function is its role as the hub of US "signals intelligence" in Europe. It is alleged that the base has the capability to intercept any form of electronic communication - be it civilian or governmental - and that automated systems can identify suspicious content by deciphering keywords. This system is often referred to as 'ECHELON' - and is the subject of much discussion.
1997 "UFO Landing"
Among the documents declassified in the 21st century by the Ministry of Defence (specifically†DEFE 24/1981†- £3.50 to buy) was a report of a submitted by a Ufologist claiming that two local farmers had seen a disc shaped object within the base, alongside base guards. The farmers also claimed to have been ordered away from the base. The MoD and Menwith Hill issued a joint statement that: "no UFO/flying saucer has landed in the vicinity of Menwith Hill and the base had no connection with UFO research."
Well. They would say that, wouldn't they?
See also: folklore