Bletchley Park was where Britain’s codebreakers, including Alan Turing, worked during World War II to crack the German’s encrypted communications. As well as providing vital intelligence to the allies, they also developed techniques and equipment that helped kickstart the development of computers after the war. The site is now open to the public as a kind of museum. I’d been meaning to go for ages and in September this year a weekend came around where I didn’t have anything else on. This post contains some thoughts on my experiences there and a few tips for visitors.
After entering and buying your ticket you can pick up a multimedia guide, which is a customised iPod Touch inside a rubberised case, with an app that offers various video clips. These clips are supposed to be watched at various points around the grounds. I actually found that the clips didn’t bear much relation to the locations. But the videos were well produced and were very interesting, with a mixture of technical information about the work done at Bletchley Park, personal recollections from people who worked there, background information about the relevance of their work to the war effort, and other information. There is also a map in the app, but it’s not very good, so I bought a guide book for £5 which has a good map on the back. The guide book is also really interesting and full of extra information.
A good map is pretty essential because the grounds are quite large. It’s difficult to know where to start and it took me a while to get my bearings. The information I could have done with on arrival was this:
Block B (where you enter and pick up the multimedia guide) is the main museum and contains (for me) the most interesting exhibits: German Enigma machines, the rebuilt Bombe, and various other machines used to create or break codes. It also contains some exhibits about what life was like for the people who worked at Bletchley Park.
The Mansion seems to be where talks take place. The times of the talks are on notices outside of the front of the mansion and take place inside the ballroom. Apart from the talks, there isn’t a lot to see in the mansion.
I found out that guided tours start from the Chauffeur’s Hut, but this was only after I wandered in there after all the tours had finished. So I didn’t get to go on one of the tours and I didn’t see any information about what times they started.
Some of the other huts have other things in and some don’t. It’s worth just wandering around and going into buildings to see what you find. There’s a room with some amazing models of ships and submarines and other wartime vehicles, for example. And a shop with wartime products in.
A lot of the site feels like a work in progress, with some huts closed and others clearly undergoing renovation.
The best bits of the day for me were the talks and demonstrations. There was a demonstration of an Enigma machine and the Bombe replica, and I went to two talks by Frank Turner on different aspects of the work done at Bletchley. I think there’s a pool of possible speakers and topics, so there’s a bit of luck involved in which talks you get on any given day. But all of the talks I saw were fascinating. The work done at Bletchley Park was complex – many of the finest minds in the country at the time were working there – yet the talks were very accessible. For me as a programmer, there were some questions raised that I wanted to know more about, but that’s no criticism of the talks themselves. It would have been impossible to satisfy everybody! If you go, I’d strongly recommend you go and see at least one of the talks in the mansion, and a demonstration of the Enigma and the Bombe.
In between the talks and demonstrations, I wandered around with the multimedia guide, watching the clips and then going into the buildings that were open to look at things inside. The grounds are really beautiful, especially the lake and mansion, and there are picnic tables and benches scattered around. When I went it was dry and sunny. It wouldn’t be as pleasant to wander round outside in the rain, so if you have the choice, pick a sunny day to go!
I had a full day at Bletchley Park and it was definitely needed. The talks took up quite a bit of the day, and there were several exhibits that I only skimmed rather than reading and looking at everything properly. But it’s a really fascinating place and it’s well worth a visit if you’re at all interested in the history of computing or the British war effort.