Bletchley Park review
I went to Bletchley Park yesterday. That's where they cracked all of the Enigma codes in World War II. Unfortunately I can't tell you anything about it because it's all top secret, and they would kill me if I told you where it was. They make you sign the Official Secrets Act before you go inside, and then wipe your brain of all memories when you come out (seriously).
Ha ha... only joking. It's a big tourist attraction now so you don't have to worry. They even let the Germans in. Seventy years ago they would have had to slip in under the cover of darkness. Now they get a guidebook and a map.
If you know anything about Bletchley before you arrive then you will probably walk up to the door expecting to see that old brown-brick mansion -- the famous one that is pictured in all the WWII books. But what you actually see are a load of modern looking flat buildings -- a bit like an industrial business park. The first few rooms are very bland looking... but stick with it, because they contain a lot of interesting introductory material. You get a good dip into what they achieved here, and can see some old black and white photos of how the rooms used to look before the tourists turned up, filled with computer banks and messy desks -- it looks very cold and draughty. There are lots of handwritten notes and computer ticker tapes, covered in pencil scrawl and workings out, and papers stamped with "Top Secret" in big red letters. There are even a few letters from Churchill himself, enquiring about the Enigma intercepts.
There is lots and lots (and lots) of information about how the machines were captured, and how the codes were cracked, and which military operations directly benefited from their work. One minute you are looking at a string of random letters, and the next minute you are looking at troop movements and tank formations. Imagine how exciting it must have been to read that stuff, as it inched it's way out of the machine. And it's not all about the Germans; you've got Japanese and Russian stuff too, and biographies of our spies... even a little bit about Montgomery's double, and how we used him to trick the Italians. In fact, there is more stuff about spy work and code-breaking in here, than there is about the whole of World War II in the Imperial War Museum.
The objects on display are all top-notch. I've only ever seen one Enigma machine before (in the Science Museum), but they've got a glut of them at Bletchley. If you think that we only stole one, then check out their case with ten inside! They've got all the schematics and wiring diagrams too, explaining exactly how the technology worked -- it's very detailed stuff.
After that comes a little exhibition about Alan Turing, and how poorly he was treated by the Government (and he was, poor bloke). If you explore all of the huts outside then you will eventually find his office, complete with his messy desk overflowing with paperwork and pens.
The huts are well worth exploring, because that's where most of the important work was done. Some of them have been redecorated to look exactly how they were during the war, with busy desks and paperwork, fag packets in the bin and hats and coats roughly stuffed on the hook. They've got some animated chatter and typewriter clacks coming out of the speakers as well, and some actors projected onto the walls to make it look like they're having a chat. It reminded me a little bit of the Cabinet War Rooms, because both places are like a time capsule. The big difference is the War Rooms were sealed up tight at the end of the war, so everything you see is in the same place they left it. But Bletchley is more of a reconstruction.
The grounds themselves reminded me of a university campus. It's all two storey brick buildings, painted in a sickly shade of cream, and a load of deep-green coloured scout huts. It's not until you get halfway round that you'll finally see the pretty lake and the brown brick mansion beyond. It's quite a pleasant scene, and you can have a sit down by the water and listen to your audio-guide.
A lot of the grounds feel like a Boy's Own Adventure. You can go round the back of the house, for example, and see the gate and sentry box where the dispatch riders came in, ferrying the intercepts up and down the country. Then you can have a nose around the garages too, filled with period bikes and cars. They've even got some of the old bike sheds, complete with rusty old push bikes with bells on.
The mansion is probably the least interesting of all the buildings, which is a bit weird. There's not a lot to look at inside, just a few function rooms filled with tables and chairs. But what rooms! It really is a mansion, with wood-panelled walls and chandeliers. Two of the rooms still contain artefacts, including a very nice library, and there's a little bookshop in there too; so make sure you have a good look around.
So is it worth a visit? I think so. But it all depends on whether you like the war. This place is all about the information boards. If you can't be bothered to read them then it's hardly worth going.
As for the town centre, do yourself a favour and give it a miss. There's nothing to see in Bletchley. It's just a load of boarded up windows and billboards. It's all concrete shops and bin bags on the pavement. In fact, it's exactly the kind of place where you'd try and hide a top secret facility -- no one is going to bother bombing Bletchley, because it looks like it's already been bombed!
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