Bletchley, Milton Keynes: Bletchley Park

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If you’re British, odds are good you’re already familiar with the story of Bletchley Park.  If you’re not, however, you might not know about it (I’d certainly never heard of it until I moved to Britain, and I love history), so perhaps a bit of background is in order.  Shortly after WWI, a German engineer invented the Enigma machine – a device that could be used to encode messages, which was basically a typewriter with up to four rotors attached; the code could be changed by changing the setting of the rotors, and the person receiving the message would have to know how to position their rotors to decode it ( I apologise if I’m describing this incorrectly, but I know almost nothing about engineering).  Although this device was initially conceived of for fairly innocuous purposes (its inventor thought that perhaps banks could have a use for it), it was adopted by the German military in the years leading up to WWII.  Obviously, in 1939, when the British entered the war, having the ability to crack the German codes would be extremely useful.  Enter Bletchley Park.

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Although Bletchley is now quite near to Milton Keynes (the famous “planned city” that was built in the 1960s), during the war, it was kind of in the middle of nowhere, which was one of its virtues.  Far enough from major cities to be an unlikely target of the Blitz, yet near enough to London to allow messages to be carried back and forth, the old country estate seemed an ideal location for MI6 to set up headquarters.  It had to be built in a hurry, so most of the staff had to work in crude huts that were boiling in the summer and freezing in the winter, yet it still attracted some of the greatest minds of the day, including Alan Turing.  (Benedict is set to play him in a film later this year, can’t wait!)  Turing improved a Polish invention, the Bombe machine (named after the pudding, rather than an incendiary device) to help with the decoding process, but it still involved a lot of quick-thinking on the part of the staff, particularly as the German codes changed every day (it helped that a lot of the messages contained standard phrases, like Heil Hitler, which was useful in sussing things out)!

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Anyway, there were lots of amazing inventions and innovations to come out of Bletchley Park, which I’m sure you can find more about elsewhere on the internet; suffice it to say that the work done here probably helped shorten the war by at least two years.  After the war, the whole Bletchley story remained classified until the ’70s, and the Park wasn’t decommissioned until the ’80s.  It was turned into a museum in the 1990s, which finally brings me to my visit here!

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It really is a whole complex, so you’ll want to set aside a good few hours for your visit.  Admission is £15 (though English Heritage members get £3 off, woot!), and they offer a number of free guided tours, though we didn’t partake of any.  You enter the park through a museum section with a short film, and an overview of the history of Bletchley (basically what I just did above, only in more detail).  It explained the whole process of breaking codes, which involved not only cracking the Enigma, but obviously required knowledge of German (and later, Japanese) to translate the messages!

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After that, they hand you an interactive tour device (a step up from the loathed audio guide, since it was a touch screen device, allowing you to skip around and only listen to the stuff you were really interested in, and they even had long and short versions of most clips for impatient people like me!), and you’re left to wander the property.

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The next building over was also a museum, but this one was deeply technical, about the exact working of the Enigma and the Bombe, and I really couldn’t follow most of what was going on, not being terribly technically minded myself (I’m the complete opposite of my brother, who’s currently getting a degree in mechanical engineering).  However, they also had information on Alan Turing, who I’ve always felt quite bad for (the British government basically stigmatised him for being gay, and effectively destroyed his career, which was certainly a major factor in his suicide a couple years later), including the statue of him, and even his adorable teddy (named Porgy).  They also had a 3D slideshow, which was again incomprehensibly technical, but hey, it was in 3D!

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The upper floor had some war memorabilia, and memories of life at Bletchley Park, which seemed to either involve delightful entertainments, like sport and films, or else just a crap-tonne of work, I suppose depending on one’s personality (I would have been one of the sad sacks who was miserable and unsociable).  We next headed around the “lake” (more of a pond, really) to the manor house, which looked really grand (and had an awesome griffin thing outside), but was pretty disappointing on the interior.  It smelled musty and was full of chairs, so I assume it’s normally just used as conference rooms and a banquet hall, as there weren’t really any displays inside.

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There were also a few huts to the left of the mansion, but they were either closed off, or just held small displays, like one on Ian Fleming that was actually fairly interesting (there was also another display on spies inside one of the museums).  There were a couple more huts behind the mansion, which were also closed off, though you could peer inside, and there was a small Polish war memorial hidden back here as well (and what appeared to be a cemetery behind a gate, though there wasn’t any information on that, so I’m not sure what the story is).

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The huts to the right of the mansion, however, were the ones that had already been restored, so those were pretty cool.  One of them had a bunch of interactive code breaking games, and the other ones were just decorated as they would have been during the war – they even had a re-creation of Alan Turing’s office!  Videos of actors playing the codebreakers were projected on the walls, and it’s worth noting that most of the workers here were women, recruited largely from the upper classes (like Baroness Trumpington) or the Wrens (Women’s Royal Naval Service).  Indeed, the building housing the code-breaking machines was staffed entirely by women.

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A garage behind the manor house contained the vehicles used by the staff.  Though most of the code-breakers got around town by bicycle, due to rationing, there were quite a few other workers that weren’t involved in code-breaking, but played a crucial role in relaying the resulting messages to the government and military.  Many of these drivers were also women, who got to ride bad-ass motorcycles back and forth between London and Bletchley, often in the dead of night.  Obviously they had phones and telegrams and such back then, but then you ran the risk of your messages being intercepted (since the transmissions from the Germans were being intercepted by the British in the first place), so it was safer to just hand-deliver them.  They also had some Packards that were used by staff.

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In addition to the main buildings, Bletchley Park contains a lot of smaller museums that aren’t managed by the Trust, but are still included in the price of admission; there’s a radio museum, a cinema museum, and a post office museum, but my favourite by far was the Toy Museum. This place was all kinds of awesome.  It reeked of mothballs (which I kind of like, it reminds me of how my great-aunt’s house smelled) and had so much crap crammed into just a couple of rooms, even old caricature puzzles that showed FDR perched on a stool (unlikely, but I guess a good compromise between standing or showing him in a wheelchair).

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In addition to old toys (some of which visiting children were allowed to play with), they also had a variety of clothing from the ’40s, with descriptions of the fabrics used and how things were made, which I thought was fascinating (and explained the presence of the mothballs, I have a moth problem myself, and those newfangled “good-smelling” moth repellants they have now simply don’t do the job). I loved all the old dresses, and would happily wear them myself, even if they were made from flour sacks and old parachutes.

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I also liked all the old cookery booklets designed to help you make the most of your rations, and could have easily spent much longer here looking at everything (I have a Betty Crocker cookbook of my grandma’s from 1950, and it has those same charming illustrations of anthropomorphic food in it, as well as little poems – the one about eggs is unintentionally hilarious).

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I should mention that there is also a National Museum of Computing right in one of the car parks, which has the Colossus and other early giant computers in it, but apparently they’re engaged in a long-running feud with Bletchley Park, and so it is not included in the admission, but is a separate attraction that costs 5 pounds extra.  For that reason, we did not visit, and I imagine many other people don’t either, but it is there if computers are your primary interest.

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We spent three hours in Bletchley, and could probably easily have spent more, especially if we’d taken one of the tours.  Although some of the museums were just too specialised for me (I’m still not completely sure how the machines worked, but the museum assured me that I probably wouldn’t unless my mind worked like Alan Turing’s, so I don’t feel so bad about that), and it would have been nice if more had been done with the manor house, as it seemed like a gorgeous building that just needed some attention, overall the day was very enjoyable.  I really liked learning more about the people who worked here, and the amazing work they did, and I think it was worth the long drive up from London (don’t miss the chance to get your picture with the concrete triceratops in Milton Keynes whilst you’re in the area, as seen below).  4/5

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3 comments

  1. It is so good to have the background to Bletchley park and see the photos. We watched the TV series so you’ve given us a peak at the place and times behind the show. Thanks.

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