Oscar and I went with granny and granddad to Bletchley Park today.
It’s been on my list of places to visit for some time, and a happy set of circumstances meant that granny and granddad were quite keen too, so we joined forces.
It’s only about an hour from here, just this side of Milton Keynes, and we went down the A5 instead of the motorway, and were amazed by the sunlight on fields, flowers blooming in the hedges, and high, cloudless skies. It was all very miraculous, and I kind of felt rather like that bit in the bible where the dove returns to the ark with an olive branch.
It was blinkin’ marvellous.
Bletchley is a strange, strange place.
For those of you who do not know, it was requisitioned during the war as the place where Churchill put what he called his ‘golden geese’. These were the people who were trained as code breakers, and whose most famous code breaking tussle was with the German ‘Enigma’ encryption machine. Although they did much more work there, and there were many more encryption devices and code breaking programmes they worked on.
To begin with it was not part of the world of the regular armed forces, and most of the people who worked there came from universities and were recruited by word of mouth and as friends of friends. Eventually it merged with the armed forces, but there were still plenty of people working there who were civilians, which made for a strange mix of the unorthodox methods and ideas of the code breakers and the more rigid structure of army life.
The house soon became too small for all the activity and all the people at Bletchley so a series of huts were built in the grounds, most of which are still there today in various states of repair.
After the war, the park was pretty much abandoned, and it is only in recent years that renovations have started taking place, as more and more information has emerged about what went on at Bletchley, and more and more people are interested in going there.
It is all rather make do and mend, in the nicest possible way. My mum summed it up when she said: ‘It’s all terribly British, isn’t it?’
And it is.
It kind of reminds me of my childhood in lots of ways. It’s all in the tradition of steam fairs and slightly crap summer fetes, and that kind of thing. Lots of signage that is very unclear which leads you down pathways full of laurel bushes, into huts that smell a bit like hospitals, where enthusiastic amateurs fail to give you the right change, but mean well.
The admission charge is rather steep. It’s £15 for an adult, £10 concessions and children under 12 go free. The fee does give you admittance for a whole year, which makes the price more tolerable, as does the fact that as you go round you see what a herculean task is ahead of them to renovate the site.
There are lots of things to do too, many of them strange, and a lot of them shut (mostly everything seems open on weekends). There is a toy museum, which should have been shut today, but which wasn’t. Only it didn’t just have toys in it. It had a random selection of ‘old’ things, seemingly piled into cases willy nilly. The toy museum also has a bric a brac stall on a wobbly card table. Which was a kind of symbol of the whole day.
There is a hut full of Churchill memorabilia, which is owned and run by a private family, but which you can go and wander round. The people who run it are very friendly, and totally Churchill mad. Oscar went in expecting to see a bull dog selling insurance. Instead he had a staring contest with a waxwork of Churchill (Oscar won apparently), and then tripped over showing off for the security cameras.
There is a cinema which shows films old and new, but which is only open on weekends.
There is a post office where apparently it is possible to send encrypted messages. We wouldn’t know, as it was so full of code geeks in jumbo cords we never got a look in.
There is a tea room where I saw a man whose filthy trousers had a gusset so low that it was scraping the floor. He looked like one of the Flower Pot men come to life, and was having terrible trouble with his tea pot. As well as this kind of entertainment it serves very good cakes, despite their utilitarian look, and a fine cup of coffee. It also has a good playground outside for small children to hurl themselves around on in the broiling heat.
There are lots and lots of huts and rooms where there are ‘private’ exhibits. These are not private in terms of not letting the public see them, they are private in that they have been arranged by private individuals who have an interest in the park. Some of these are, as you can imagine, rather odd.
One person has turned his exhibition space into a replica of a German code room, clad in camouflage paint.
Oscar said this was to stop the ‘enemy’ getting in, because they would not be able to spot it.
Another person had filled his with model aeroplanes. One area was full of old school desks and a mannequin dressed in a school boy’s outfit. It was all rather random and endearingly amateur.
In one place there were a load of boffins tinkering about with a bombe machine. The bombe machine was invented by a man called Alan Turing, who some people now hail as the inventor of the computer age.
Turing wanted to create a machine that would help decrypt the messages from the German Enigma machines.
The Enigma machine looked like a complicated type writer.
They had to be used in pairs. The first operator would use theirs and type in their message. The machine used a series of rotor wheels to change the letters of the message and encrypt them. The paired machine, knowing the setting of the other machine could then be used to type in the code and come out with the correct message.
The bombe machines were enormous, and consisted of wheels with the alphabet on which moved in patterns which generated thousands of possible decrypts for each encrypted message. They were notoriously difficult to set and maintain and hideously noisy, and would have to work for hours and hours at a time to make even the smallest breakthrough.
The men we met today have Turing’s drawings, but had no further clue about how to build a bombe. So far they have managed to make a small version, and while we were there today they were head down in a huge version trying to make it work.
They were having a lovely time. The chap we talked to called it; ‘the ultimate boy’s toy.’
Oscar disagreed. He was very upset that Turing’s teddy bear is in a glass case and wanted to liberate it. He was only mollified when we told him that after the park closes at night, the bear gets out and sends coded messages to all his bear friends, and then they all go off on his motorbike to eat honey in the woods.
He liked this idea very much.
In another area of the site there is a museum of computing, most of which was shut down for refurbishment while we were there. It did have the Colossus room open. The Colossus was another code breaking machine, which was created by a man called Tommy Flowers (who, like Turing, was woefully treated by our government after the war) to help with breaking encrypted teleprinter messages from a German Lorenz machine.
The Colossus on show today is a replica of the one made by Flowers and his team, and, like the bombes, it is vast.
And fragile, hence the sophisticated cooling device of a fan on its side helping to stop all the glass bits from overheating and shattering all over the floor.
Bletchley is definitely worth a visit if you are interested in World War II, or the beginnings of the computer age.
It’s also worth visiting if you miss the Seventies and fancy a trip backwards in time to how England used to be before anyone had heard of McDonalds’ and Sunday opening.