Bletchley

by Ken Gibb

We took a day of leave this week to travel to Bletchley Park near Milton Keynes. It was an early flight to fly down and then get a train to Bletchley (and a late night to get back home). But it was fascinating. We had planned to go down a few years back but were unable to do so – just as well in the sense that we benefited from the recent investment to renew and recreate the centre of wartime codebreaking.

The place is a proper museum now though it still has a lot of further work planned. Many of the huts where crypto-analysis and computation took place have been restored along with the mansion house and the grounds. It feels more like a campus than anything else. There are various multi media strands, as well as a reconstituted ‘bombe’ computer and archaeology such as coding sheets found doing the restorations. There are of course lots of Enigma machines and various decoding brain teaser exercises (are they still recruiting?).

Alan Turing is, rightly, everywhere, not least because of the recent Benedict Cumberpatch film which is also unavoidable. But there is a real sense of history and importance about the place and it is incredible how close we came to losing the site altogether (there were plans to extend a housing development which did in part extend into the historical site). The museum designers or recreaters have made a great job of it though there are still blocks outside that are waiting the same treatment once sufficient funds are raised.

It was a bit emotional for me walking round the site and taking it in because I knew that my mother, then a teenager, had been a WRN working in a Bletchley outstation in London towards the end of the war. She did not talk about it until comparatively recently (they took their secrecy seriously). This was a principal reason for wanting to visit and also why in a sense it is a shame that the museum has only recently become the fantastic resource it now is. If you ask her now about it, the things she most recalls about the work include the close work of setting up the machines for computation, and working to strict navy watches of 8 hour shifts. She also remembers the  Heath Robinson cocktail parties – but that is another story.

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