Tuesday, 4 October 2016

A visit to Bletchley Park

The tea room in the visitors centre. I thought this was a good visual metaphor for the grids and patterns that the code breakers were looking for
A comfortable 45 minute train ride from London Euston saw us delivered to Bletchley railway station in bright sunshine followed by a short walk to the entrance to the visitors centre at Bletchley Park. What a contrast this must have been to how members of staff used to arrive at work during WWII when Station X (as it was known) was completely secret.

Now Bletchley Park has its own website but it very nearly didn't survive plans in the early 1990s to be demolished and replaced with a housing estate, petrol station and supermarket. Thanks to the dedication of some well-connected enthusiasts and veterans who had worked there the site has been preserved and allows us, the visitors, to get a glimpse of what it was like slogging away on eight hour shifts breaking the Enigma codes that the German Army and Air force were sending day and night.

In hut 11 the display gives you some idea of the constant noise the WRNS (Women's Royal Naval Service) had to endure not to mention the discomfort of standing up for their whole shift. In huts 3 and 6 where the top secret code breaking took place you can see packets of cigarettes at every desk so the staff must have been working in a fug of fag smoke all day long not to mention worrying about getting the job done which reminds me of working in publishing in the early 1980s.

The results achieved at Bletchley Park due to the perseverance of scholars like Gordon Welchman a fellow at Sydney Sussex College, Cambridge who led the Enigma decryption team and mathematicians including Alan Turing, are credited with shortening WWII by two years which is remarkable. Once the war was over Bletchley Park was shut and all the staff returned to their civilians lives having been instructed never to mention to anyone what they did during the war.

Obviously a visit to this previously secret site feels a bit artificial. Civilians would never have been given access to stroll around the offices, loll about in the canteen or lounge around the gardens any more than we would be able to at MI6 or MI5 now but it does give the visitor some idea how complex the business of preserving a nation's security is which is not something I've ever given much thought to.

Quick pencil sketch of the mansion

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