diamond geezer

 Sunday, December 12, 2010

World War Two was won by soldiers, officers, sailors and air crew. But it was shortened by mathematicians. Had codebreakers not provided invaluable information behind the scenes, WW2 could have dragged on until 1947, or 1949, or we could even have lost. Hurrah, then, for the cream of British intelligence at Bletchley Park. Fancy a visit?
It's easy to get there. The entrance to this former top secret establishment is within brief walking distance of Bletchley station. For those in London, that's a zip up from Euston station. Pick your fast train carefully and you could be walking through the front gates less than 45 minutes from leaving town.

Bletchley ParkBletchley Park mansion lies halfway between Oxford and Cambridge, which helps explain why MI6 officials bought up its estate immediately before the outbreak of war. They established the hastily-assembled Government Code and Cypher School, and erected scores of prefabricated huts around the grounds. Within these workspaces the brightest minds of the day (mostly men) were supported by a pool of devoted administrators (mostly women). Nobody ever mentioned to friends or family what they were up to, and Bletchley Park's secrets stayed hidden well into the 1970s.
The site's now owned by a trust and has been open to the public since 1993. They maintain a series of exhibits and exhibitions, and attempt to prevent the place from crumbling into disrepair. Most importantly, they've so far managed to prevent the site from being redeveloped into a bog standard housing estate, like the one that's currently being erected nextdoor. So far, so good.

The German armed forces sent coded messages to each other using a fiendish machine called Enigma. This looked like a typewriter in a wooden box, with an electric current travelling from the keyboard through a set of rotors and a plugboard to light up the 'code' alphabet. Enigma could encrypt any message into code in over 150 million million million different ways, which led the Germans to believe that their codes were unbreakable and their military secrets were safe. They were wrong.
Several different Enigma machines are now on display at Bletchley Park, along with a variety of other wartime memorabilia. Volunteers also run explanatory tours for visitors - ninety minutes around the site, mixing historical details with cryptographic technique. These deliver over and above what you might normally expect, and are led by entertaining experts. I think it's fair to describe the tours as intellectually stimulating, so if you find reading The Sun a challenge I wouldn't bother.

Alan Turing statueHidden away at Bletchley Park, the cream of the UK's code-breakers were ready and waiting each morning to try to crack that day's code. There were useful clues, like the fact that messages often started with a weather report, or the fact that Enigma never ever coded a given letter as itself. One major advance came from mathematician Alan Turing, who designed a complex mechanical device called a Bombe which could analyse hundreds of thousands of possible rotor positions. Thanks to its input, Churchill often knew precisely what the Germans were up to and could plan his tactics accordingly.
The original Bombes were all destroyed after the war, but volunteers have managed to reconstruct one and it has pride of place in the exhibition in Block B. The tour guides also have access to a more basic mock-up, and they'll try to explain to you how the rotating drums generated electrical circuits which identified logical contradictions. Don't leave your brain at home.

After the war ended the site passed into the hands of the GPO, and then to BT. There's still a mock-up Post Office in the grounds, which was once used for training and now sells first day covers (and stuff) to visitors. Most of the huts have survived, in varying states of repair, and several are open for you to poke around inside. See Alan Turing's office in Hut 8, find out about Winston Churchill in Block A, or sample the (non-historic) cafe in Hut 4. There's a model railway exhibit in one (didn't you just know there would be?) and a collection of vintage vehicles in the lock-ups round the back of the Stable Yard.
This weekend, as a special treat, the Bletchley Park site is dressed up for a "Festival of Christmas" event. Specially imported fake snow covers the front lawn, which is ironic because the real stuff only melted a few days ago. There's a (rather small) funfair, and a (terribly artificial) ice rink, plus an (obviously genuine) Santa Claus greeting children in Hut 12. More intriguingly the ground floor of the mansion has been taken over by 50 stallholders flogging festive gift fodder, from 'vanilla and chilli' candles to win-a-bottle tombolas. The event's reeling in the locals, but rather at odds with what more long-distance visitors have come to expect.

Bletchley Park is a fascinating place to explore, and the volunteers on site make every effort to be both helpful and informative. If you're the sort of person who reads this blog more than intermittently, you've either already been or really ought to go.
Admission usually costs a tenner, but entrance is free this weekend if you fill in the voucher in Milton Keynes' local paper. Personally, I suspect they'd prefer you to wait. Given the perilous state of Bletchley Park's finances, every paying visitor counts.

Saving Bletchley Park - donate
• Bletchley Park - map of the site
• Bletchley Park - blog, Twitter
• Bletchley Park - history, more history
• Bletchley Park - guided tour, photos
• Station X - the Bletchley Park monthly geekmeet

<< click for Newer posts

click for Older Posts >>

click to return to the main page

...or read more in my monthly archives
Jan19  Feb19  Mar19
Jan18  Feb18  Mar18  Apr18  May18  Jun18  Jul18  Aug18  Sep18  Oct18  Nov18  Dec18
Jan17  Feb17  Mar17  Apr17  May17  Jun17  Jul17  Aug17  Sep17  Oct17  Nov17  Dec17
Jan16  Feb16  Mar16  Apr16  May16  Jun16  Jul16  Aug16  Sep16  Oct16  Nov16  Dec16
Jan15  Feb15  Mar15  Apr15  May15  Jun15  Jul15  Aug15  Sep15  Oct15  Nov15  Dec15
Jan14  Feb14  Mar14  Apr14  May14  Jun14  Jul14  Aug14  Sep14  Oct14  Nov14  Dec14
Jan13  Feb13  Mar13  Apr13  May13  Jun13  Jul13  Aug13  Sep13  Oct13  Nov13  Dec13
Jan12  Feb12  Mar12  Apr12  May12  Jun12  Jul12  Aug12  Sep12  Oct12  Nov12  Dec12
Jan11  Feb11  Mar11  Apr11  May11  Jun11  Jul11  Aug11  Sep11  Oct11  Nov11  Dec11
Jan10  Feb10  Mar10  Apr10  May10  Jun10  Jul10  Aug10  Sep10  Oct10  Nov10  Dec10 
Jan09  Feb09  Mar09  Apr09  May09  Jun09  Jul09  Aug09  Sep09  Oct09  Nov09  Dec09
Jan08  Feb08  Mar08  Apr08  May08  Jun08  Jul08  Aug08  Sep08  Oct08  Nov08  Dec08
Jan07  Feb07  Mar07  Apr07  May07  Jun07  Jul07  Aug07  Sep07  Oct07  Nov07  Dec07
Jan06  Feb06  Mar06  Apr06  May06  Jun06  Jul06  Aug06  Sep06  Oct06  Nov06  Dec06
Jan05  Feb05  Mar05  Apr05  May05  Jun05  Jul05  Aug05  Sep05  Oct05  Nov05  Dec05
Jan04  Feb04  Mar04  Apr04  May04  Jun04  Jul04  Aug04  Sep04  Oct04  Nov04  Dec04
Jan03  Feb03  Mar03  Apr03  May03  Jun03  Jul03  Aug03  Sep03  Oct03  Nov03  Dec03
 Jan02  Feb02  Mar02  Apr02  May02  Jun02  Jul02 Aug02  Sep02  Oct02  Nov02  Dec02 

eXTReMe Tracker
jack of diamonds
Life viewed from London E3

» email me
» follow me on twitter
» follow the blog on Twitter
» follow the blog on RSS

my flickr photostream