TRISH TAKES FIVE: Cracking the code at Bletchley Park

The statue of Alan Turing at Bletchley Park.
The statue of Alan Turing at Bletchley Park.

If you’re looking for a fascinating day out, within a couple of hours from Spalding, I can highly recommend a trip to Bletchley Park, near Milton Keynes.

It was the centre for British code-breaking during the Second World War and the birthplace of modern computing. At its peak, there were 10,000 people at Bletchley Park and its associated outstations, painstakingly listening to radio signals, deciphering, interpreting and relaying messages.

The famous Bombe machine, which helped to crack the Enigma settings, was developed here by Alan Turing and Gordon Welchman, building on the process started by the Polish Cyber Bureau just before the beginning of the war.

The new visitors’ centre, museum and the codebreaking huts are all situated on a large estate. We walked around the lake to the beautiful mansion where the code-breaking began and explored the huts to imagine how the work was carried out.

The museum has on display the largest number of Enigma machines in the world, plus a rebuilt operational Bombe.

A personal audio-video guide is provided for everyone. It’s easy to use and allows you to choose how much information you wish to absorb. It certainly helped us piece together all the operations which were taking place.

As is often the case with historical places, it’s the little things that can make as much of an impact as the main attractions. I loved spotting the personal touches which had been added to the huts to recreate life at Bletchley Park: a cardigan draped over a chair, coats hanging up on a hook, an open handbag with a packet of cigarettes and pair of spectacles spilling out.

The tasks involved were laborious, so workers were always trying to discover simple ways to improve efficiency. In one case, the operation was streamlined between huts 6 and 3 by passing documents via a wooden chute: a broom shoved the papers in at one end and a string was pulled from the other.

I was intrigued to learn that a whole host of social activities were arranged for the workers: drama groups, dancing and fencing. Chess was also a popular pastime, unsurprising when you discover that chess players, such as the famous code-breaker Hugh Alexander, were often recruited to Bletchley Park because they tended to have a natural aptitude for the job.

Tickets to Bletchley Park give you unlimited free returns for a year, which is particularly handy as we didn’t get to see everything during the few hours we spent at the park on Easter Saturday.

It’s thought that the efforts of the code-breakers reduced the length of the war by two years. The contribution of these women and men (women outnumbering men 3 to 1), is immeasurable.

As we left Bletchley Park, our minds were whirring with codes, spy stories and with a sense of deep gratitude to all those who played their part in this vital wartime work.

You can read Trish’s blog at www.mumsgoneto.co.uk