I first visited Bletchley Park one summer’s afternoon sometime in the 1990s with my mother. For her (born 1924), the Second World War was a defining event. She had worked at London Transformer Products in NW London, and I had the impression that the drudgery and fear of the war years were partly offset for her by the presence of Canadian and Polish soldiers. She expressed an interest in visiting Bletchley Park on one of the occasional open days that followed the departure of the Post Office from the site. We entered via Wilton Avenue and were taken around grounds scattered with dilapidated sheds and tatty brick blocks that had once housed life-and-death activities.
The second time, some 10 or 15 years later, it was transformed into a much more professional enterprise. Today was my third visit, and this time I went with a friend whose father had worked at Bletchley Park from the 1960s onwards for the Civil Aviation Authority. She had seen a computer print-out in 1974 when the rest of us were still walking around with logarithm tables in our bags.
Yes, it was still interesting even on the third occasion. The handwritten diaries (so neat!) and the hideous gas masks brought real people to life again. And the sheer otherness of the past – was it Celia Johnson in the film “The job that fits” giving advice to young women training to be Morse code operators? All speaking in such well-modulated voices and working in such well-drilled formation.
But the main reason that I was pleased to visit again was because just a few weeks previously I had been looking at the Twentieth Century Society’s “100 Buildings 100 Years”. For 1943 (admittedly a year that saw more destruction than construction), they had chosen Block D at Bletchley Park. A factory for brainwork under a concrete roof built by the Ministry of Works and Buildings, it is currently closed and looking rather sorry for itself. If it is anything like Block C, it will be built from steel girders and bricks. Did those bricks come from the London Brickworks in Bletchley? Even, perhaps, from what is now the Blue Lagoon on Water Eaton Road?
To help me to get to grips with the names:
- Bombe – not a computer, but an electromechanical device (like I know the difference) to help crack the Enigma cipher. It used rotors and wires that look like thick red arteries. The concept came from Alan Turing and was improved by others. Hence Benedict Cumberbatch did not win the war single-handed.
- Colossus – the world’s first programmable electronic computer designed by Tommy Flowers. It used valves – lots of them. I don’t think anyone’s made a film of Flowers yet. One for Cumberbatch in glasses, perhaps?