Last weekend we decided to head off up north (or “oop north” if you’re an inhabitant of the wildlands beyond Hampshire) to take in our annual Super League game in Yorkshire. Travelling up north involves driving in the car and it’s far enough away to warrant a stop en route so – with a printout of a map of England (other countries are available), two compasses, and a ruler – I used an old trick from my days studying Engineering Drawing (before it became Technical Drawing (before it became Graphic Communication for my exam (which I got a B in, thank you very much))) and drew a perpendicular line exactly halfway between Portsmouth and Wakefield to identify the ideal place to halt, have a stretch of the legs, and possibly take in some sight of interest.
I quickly realised this was only of any use if the roads between the two destinations were absolutely straight and, since they’re not, reverted to Plan B of closing my eyes, plonking my finger down somewhere between London and the Midlands, and hoping for the best.
My index finger landed on Milton Keynes and a shudder rippled down the length of my spine. First time’s just a test, I told myself silently, and prepared to pick again when I spotted the word Bletchley nearby. In the back of my mind there was a whirr of dials and cogs and a memory made itself known: Bletchley Park. Codebreakers. World War 2. Alan Turing. Enigma.
A quick search confirmed that Bletchley Park was indeed in Bletchley (cf. Leeds Castle) and we had our mid-travel pit stop arranged!
Your first experience of the secretive nature surrounding Bletchley Park comes in trying to find the place. Up the A5 we did travel until we saw a brown sign directing us towards our destination. We followed it and then saw another sign. We followed that one and then hit a roundabout where there was no indication where to go so picked an exit at random. A few minutes later with no signs at all we turned around and headed back. We saw a new sign and followed that until we reached another junction with no obvious indication where to go. About to pick a route at random again I just spotted at ground level, half-covered up by grass a small sign with an arrow pointing the opposite way. Nice try, Bletchley Park, but we finally found you!
Bletchley Park itself was not what we were expecting. But I don’t really know what we were expecting. Probably best I just describe it. Huts and buildings, a mansion, a lake, a post office… all either in a state of decay or having been brought to life and stocked to either appear as they would have done in the 1940s or display historical information. But also: people working in some of the buildings, office space rented out to companies, the top floor of the mansion a corporate area; all this to bring in revenue for the place – which we had no problems with at all, in case you should think otherwise – but it did lend the place an odd feel. Typically, when you look around a place of historic interest you see it in the company of tourists but at Bletchley if someone doesn’t have a sticker on their top then there’s a good chance they’re from a local I.T. company or estate agents or something similar. Again: nothing wrong with this, but it makes Bletchley Park stand out from other days out.
As part of this whole half-tourist-attraction, half-business-offices arrangement everything feels very open; if the door’s not locked or sporting an entry-code system then you can pretty much wander wherever you like. Time it right and you can walk around for half an hour without seeing another soul. The contrast between the freedom of Bletchley Park now compared to how it must have been during the war is difficult to imagine. Unless you’ve got a good imagination. I do. Oooh! That’s quite contrasty!
In terms of things to see at Bletchley there are several locations decorated in the style of the time of the height of its most famous operations; authentic and replica pieces of vintage equipment are present in significant numbers. The buildings themselves (not including the mansion) aren’t stunning to most people architecturally-speaking – no gothic arches, no art deco motifs, etc. – but I’m not most people (if I don’t cut down on food intake I might, however, one day be most people) and love the utilitarian designs in the compact, squared-off constructions. The basic paint schemes on the buildings contrasted wonderfully with the vibrant greens of the grass and blue of the sky on the day we visited. If it’s overcast or night when you visit then it will look differently. But you probably worked that out.
Other points of interest in the visit include the lake – very peaceful – and the two exhibitions showcasing Winston Churchill memorabilia and vintage toys, both of which leave you feeling refreshed after a severe dousing of nostalgia even if you weren’t alive during the period. Well, they did for me, anyway. Perhaps this is evidence of past life regression. I wouldn’t count on it, though, being as there’s no such thing. There’s also a working post office where you can send secret mail to the Nazis if you so wish. Although, I’m assuming you don’t so wish because you’re not an idiot. One of the first areas you’ll probably walk through are the floors dedicated to some of the history of codebreaking at Bletchley where you can see some rebuilt versions of the machines used to help crack Enigma; if you’re a fan of vacuum tubes, cogs, dials, switches, and wires then this will fill you with joy. If you aren’t a fan of those things then you’ll still like it but your joy will remain at a sensible, not-a-weirdo level.
There’s also the mansion – at least, the ground floor of the mansion as upstairs is rented out to businesses – which, although fairly spartan, still retains some idea of the splendour of the place. Lovely, large rooms and impressive windows throughout. The ballroom is particularly nice and there’s a very grand skylight over a side-room off the main hallway.
And, finally, one of the highlights and difficult to miss, the visitors’ car park with its authentic 1940s-style parking bays for cars four feet wide that necessitated me telling my wife to get out before I parked to give us a fighting chance of being able to open one of the doors and squeeze out.
So tnat’s our visit to Bletchley Park recounted. Three hours there on a lovely, clear, bright day was just about right for us. If you bring a picnic (there are plenty of places to sit down and eat), join the organised tour, have kids, or are a slow walker or reader then you could easily add another couple of hours and still not see everything. Lovely place, ideal stop, and something a little different from a museum or typical stately home.