Deciphering the secrets of Bletchley Park, home to the codebreakers

Bletchley Park has a number of obstacles in the way of becoming a premier tourist attraction on the heritage trail.

Mansion Bletchley Park

One is that it isn’t actually the stately home that the name would suggest. Well, not most lately. And so it doesn’t have gorgeous interiors for everyone to sigh over, or showy gardens to smell and wonder how they grow grapes in this climate, or even naturalistic parklands to ramble around, sheep spotting.

Although there is a lake, free deckchair seating and the manor house does still exist, and is pleasant to look at, even if the interior is more functional than aspirational. And they have a cafe that would do the National Trust proud as well as a children’s play area.

Lake Bletchley Park

Shame that it’s the large number of ugly prefabs, and the later square brick buildings that the place is really about. Because the reason why you visit Bletchley Park is because it’s the place where the British codebreakers lived and worked during World War Two.

Memorial and huts Bletchley Park

Now this at first glance ought to make the whole place an easier sell. SPYING!

But no.

I mean, there are moments of high drama, such as when the navy captured the Enigma machine, which seems like a lot of effort for clunky gears, levers, and inexplicably crude keyboard to the 21st century child I am but ymmv.

Enigma Cipher Machine Bletchley Park

Or examples of intense tragedy such as what happened to Alan Turing after he stopped being indispensable to the war effort, which is something Mama sincerely wishes were also hopelessly outdated.

Apology to Turing at Bletchley Park

But mostly what Bletchley Park was about was people existing quietly in cold offices for hours and hours and hours and HOURS crunching numbers, changing cogs, smoking, eating in a canteen, probably not getting enough sleep, and then going back and doing it all over again the next day. In secret.

Cold codebreakers at Bletchley Park

It may have shortened the war by a couple of years but the high jinks of James Bond, it wasn’t.

There was an amateur dramatics society though. And a tennis court.

But this mild attempt to stop the inmates from climbing up the walls in what was probably quite a pressurised atmosphere isn’t really the sort of thing you can make a series of thrillers out of, even if I think that’s the best bit, having just joined an after school acting club. Which consists of wearing a hedgehog hat and wrinkling my nose a lot, as far as Mama can tell. She doesn’t think they are going to be making a film out of that any time soon, either.

Anyway. For years, Bletchley Park rather languished, semi forgotten, with only a few enthusiasts between it and its crumbling infrastructure being bulldozed to build tasteful semi-detached housing within easy reach of London.

But times change, information is declassified, technology is sexy, social media, computer scientists, and Stephen Fry mobilised behind the site, and not only was some serious money pumped into restoring it and making it attractive as a heritage tourism destination but someone did make a film about the building of a complicated mechanism AND it starred Benedict Cumberbatch, which is about as much of a rehabilitation as you can get.

So now all Bletchley Park has to do is try and explain to people who visit what breaking encoded messages actually involved.

Which brings us to the second problem because what it involves is higher level maths and the ability to complete the Times cryptic crossword in under six minutes. Unfortunately, Mama got a D in her Maths A-level and can’t complete cryptic crosswords no matter how long she is given. In addition, I am six and although Papa and my Put Upon Big Brother have been spending quite a lot of time lately wrestling with why he can’t just ASK Masha how old she will be in two years’ time instead of working it out from adding together the ages of Kirill and Katya and dividing by 42, I wouldn’t say they are actually very successful at it yet.

And Babushka, who is a bit of a maths whiz, thank you the Soviet habit of educating women in numbers and science, wasn’t available.

So we took Granddad with us. He at least understands the machinery.

Luckily, Bletchley Park seems to know that its visitors are likely to be lost within ten seconds of an explanation of what went on and has devised a number of ways of allowing you to hang in there.

One of them is to keep explaining the maths problems and engineering solutions to working out what was in the all important secret messages in as many different ways as they can, in the hope that some of it will make sense by the time you leave.

There are mock ups you can manipulate, film clips you can watch, touch screens you can fiddle with, computer programmes that walk you through the process, virtual table top card games to play around with, explanatory placards, displays of the machines taken apart and put together again in stages, ACTUAL WORKING MACHINES TO HEAR GO CRANK, CRANK, CLINK HISS, and a twenty minute talk about how they all functioned. With the opportunity to ask further questions.

Bombe by Turing Bletchley Park

And free audio guides (don’t forget to pick yours up), which include video. Mama didn’t spend much time looking at hers, although she enjoyed the commentary, but we insisted on finding a quiet place to watch our specially child-oriented one for each new installment.

Did it work? Well, neither I nor my Put Upon Big Brother are going to be hired by an intelligence agency to crack codes any time soon.

But Mama, Mama, after a full day spent at Bletchley Park, can reveal….

…that it was all done by magic.

Definitely, magic.

Mind you, at least she knew what the little cards in boxes were for. And had a lot of fun explaining how certain aspects of the world worked before you could just use a search function on a computer. Clearly not magic, but really, how did you all manage to tie your shoelaces and similar back in the dark ages?

Card catalogue Bletchley Park

Bletchley Park has a back up plan, however, in case you decide that the focus on calculus doesn’t float your boat and that is to emphasis the human element. Dressing the huts with little humanising elements such as cardigans slung over the back of chairs or cooling cups of tea was a nice touch. Depending on the area, you could pick up a telephone and hear actual codebreakers describing their work and lives at Bletchley Park. And although you do find out more about the work of some of the more famous Bletchley Park residents, like Alan Turing, it’s not just about him or the high ups, but the many other people there who did boring, repetitive, incomprehensible work without, really, knowing quite how much impact they were having, and without a hope of being acclaimed as heroes at the end. Because it was secret.

 Codebreakers Bletchley Park

A commitment Mama gets the impression was taken quite seriously by the people involved for a long time afterwards.

But the best bit was the digital theatre skits, which played out as you walked around looking the working spaces. Nothing dramatic, nothing explanatory, just the sights and sounds of people going about their work, and discussing it, projected onto the walls and broadcast quietly over hidden speakers. Even outside, sitting in deckchairs, you can hear sounds of motorbikes zooming up with the latest batch of communications from the radio interceptors, people wandering around chatting, banter between the Brits and the one Americans on the base as the natives try to teach the colonials rounders* and so on.

Interactve Multimedia at Bletchley Park

Mama thinks that it is the best example of how to use this sort of immersive interactive experience she has come across yet, and really lifts the visit for adults and not just the kids. In fact, Mama suspects that what with one thing and the mind bending equations and focus on mechanical engineering, this might all actually be aimed at the adults, or at least people who can do fractions.

Certainly, given that we were there in term time (have I mentioned that we get three months holiday in the summer yet?), there were a heck of a lot of  older people enthusiastically getting stuck into the interactive features in the absence of having to share them with the smaller element.

Codebreaking Bletchley Park

So Bletchley Park is interesting, whatever your age, accessible, whatever your maths skills, and an extremely good example of how to do multimedia museuming, for the amateur curators among us. And it’s only just outside London. What’s keeping you away?

*It’s a bit like baseball. It’s a children’s game. Not, y’know, something we take very seriously.

More Information

Bletchley Park’s website.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about the Enigma Cipher Machine.

Address: The Mansion, Bletchley Park, Sherwood Drive, Bletchley, Milton Keynes, MK3 6EB. Use MK3 6DS for SatNav purposes.

Opening: 9.30am to 5pm in summer. In winter it closes at 4pm.

Admission: Adults 17.75 GBP, kids over 12 10.50 GBP, kids under 12 are free. Your ticket allows you to visit as many times as you like in one year.

Getting there: Use Junction 13 off the M1 – and there is a free, extensive car park. Blecthley train station is a few minutes walk away with trains out of Euston in London.

Pin for later?

Bletchley Park near London is where the codebreakers of World War Two had their headquarters. It is also an excellent example of how to do really engaging interactive museuming.

Wander Mum