Who knew that we owe so much of our complex digital lives to the war-time activities of code-breakers toiling in secret during the Second World War at Bletchley Park?
In an unexpected location, in the middle of a nondescript town in Buckinghamshire, north west of London, sits a visitor attraction that is bound to keep the heritage hordes happy…somewhere to while away an afternoon immersing yourself in long-forgotten stories and past selfless lives.
I have often commented on the insatiable appetite for heritage and history and all that falls in between. The market is well served with providers who are only too keen to help you part with your cash to support their heritage cause. As with many other heritage sites, the balance to be struck between access and paying those bills can’t be easy, so finding your niche is important. Bletchley Park, once home to the code-breakers, has a long, glorious and complex history, to which I cannot do justice here, but suffice to say that finally, the location of such mind-boggling war-time work, so much of it top secret, can now bask in the visitor attraction and heritage limelight. Bletchley Park is fortunate in having found an excellent niche and relevance with ICT and the security headaches it brings to all of us today; with our many electronic devices, computers, encrypted passwords and daily dodging of online fraudsters who do their very best to break our personal codes.
Perhaps the Trustees would think it an overblown description of this as a Cinderella attraction following its transformation since it first opened in 1994 and successful £8 million Heritage Lottery funding that has enabled at least some of the site to be developed – much more to follow in the future and an annual visitor forecast of 250,000.
It was hard to tell from where the visitors originate, as most of us where plugged into our complimentary headsets (with impressive content) that cocooned us in a 1940’s world, with added comical gestures and expressions of our own. Some thoughtful displays and some not so, but we did enjoy the puzzles, code crackers and how to even work an Enigma machine.
Where would the heritage sector be without volunteers? In fact, where would the UK be without volunteers? There were a number of them dotted about, ready to explain the complex machinery and their impact, and to the chap who, with wit and confidence made the inner-workings of a Bombe Machine seem so obvious to the dull-witted such as myself, your contribution was inspirational!
There has been much written and broadcast of the life of Alan Turing, a brilliant mathematician who for a time led Hut 8, the section responsible for German naval cryptanalysis. Now the focus of new biopic, the Imitation Game, he devised a number of techniques for breaking German ciphers, including improvements to the pre-war Polish bombe method, an electromechanical machine that could find settings for the Enigma machine. Winston Churchill said that Turing made the single biggest contribution to Allied victory in the war against Nazi Germany. Turing’s pivotal role in cracking intercepted coded messages enabled the Allies to defeat the Nazis in several crucial battles. He was prosecuted for homosexuality in 1952 however, when such acts were still criminalised in the UK, that was to have tragic consequences.
The further we got into the experience though, you could tell where the funding had stopped. The knackered toilets really felt like a 1940’s immersion experience (no pun intended), and it couldn’t have included customer training for the young staff who were working (and some relaxing) in the caff, where ‘spot something fresh, anything fresh to eat’ become pointless. Call me bias, but I always hold the Merlin Entertainments Group as a shining example of how staff need to deal with and interact with customers, they are fabulous. No matter what job is being done, they are always ‘in the moment.’
Chess on the lawn was how we finished the visit, a fitting way to get our brains working, but I suspect nothing like the 9,000 Bletchley workers who at the peak of the war, toiled night and day on the 10,000 codes messages that flooded in from every theatre of war.
Today, July 29th, Bletchley Park’s Royal Patron, HRH The Duke of Kent, will officially open a major new exhibition telling the story of Codebreaking in World War One, The Road to Bletchley Park. The Duke will meet representatives of the exhibition’s sponsors, BAE Systems and Ultra Electronics, as well as visiting new displays and exhibitions updated since his last visit in 2009.
Head over to the new Chilterns blog, A Year in the Chilterns.
Entrance to the museum costs £15 (and is valid for one year), for adults and is free for children under 12. For further information: Bletchley Park