Exploring Bletchley Park, where WWII codebreakers worked in secret09/26/2023
A day with kids and codes at Bletchley Park? It’s cracking! Exploring the enthralling estate where WWII codebreakers worked in secret
- Bletchley Park near Milton Keynes housed the wartime codebreakers
- ‘It’s one of Britain’s most exciting tourist attractions,’ says Robert Hardman
- READ MORE: Map shows the most popular landmarks in (almost) every country
We often hear about somewhere being a ‘best-kept secret’. Here is the real thing – a secret so closely guarded that the outside world had no idea of its existence for half a century.
It all adds to the sense of discovery and astonishment which greets visitors to one of Britain’s most exciting tourist attractions – Bletchley Park. That is not just the opinion of a history-lover like me, but also of my three school-age children. They adored this place so much during their first visit in 2019 that, post-lockdown, they made me promise to take them back again – which I have just done.
Bletchley, a country house near Milton Keynes, was where some of the finest brains in the land (male and female) plus teams of bright young women from across the Forces, spent the war cracking supposedly impregnable enemy codes.
Their brilliance led on to much of the thinking behind modern computers. No wonder Downing Street has chosen this place as the location for the global AI summit in November.
What Bletchley Park does so well is to explain to us mere mortals who are not blessed with monster IQs just how all those unsung heroes did what they did, and saved countless lives in the process.
Robert Hardman takes his children to Bletchley Park near Milton Keynes, which was once home to the secret codebreakers of WWII
Robert says that ‘part of Bletchley’s charm is the atmosphere’. Above is one of the exhibits
The country house feels like a cross between a Poirot houseparty, an Army camp and a boarding school. There is no grand entrance but a single-storey brick building – Block C – where you get an introduction through videos and an easily digestible exhibition.
These explain the basics: Coded enemy messages were intercepted through listening posts and sent to Bletchley. The Germans would change codes daily, but if one message could be cracked, then a day’s communications could be decrypted.
You then pick up a headset and walk through the grounds, following a route which tells of Bletchley’s unfolding story.
Unsung heroes: Above are some of the ‘finest brains in the land’ working on the codebreaking operation during WWII
‘The country house feels like a cross between a Poirot houseparty, an Army camp and a boarding school,’ writes Robert
Above is Robert in one of the huts, which were built when the main building ran out of space
We learn how, in the early days of the war, German messages were encoded through a machine looking like a typewriter, called Enigma. But the codebreakers, including the great Alan Turing, knew that there would be certain key words, such as ‘weather report’, which would be in the messages every day – meaning they could look out for a pattern of letters and work backwards.
Part of Bletchley’s charm is the atmosphere. The old mansion still has its library, wood panelling and dining room, which serves afternoon tea. In the grounds, you can wander between huts (built when the main building ran out of space) and learn about the code-breaking tricks or the gloriously amateurish contraptions for transferring top secret messages between the huts.
There’s also a cafe in Hut 4 and a gift shop full of more than the usual tat. Come December, there will be a Christmas programme (with a Santa’s grotto) and much planned for 2024’s 80th anniversary of D-Day.
On the way home, I asked my daughter – who has never had an interest in computers – why she found it so enthralling. ‘It’s a place where women were just as important as men,’ she said. ‘Plus I loved the puzzles.’
Adult tickets to Bletchley cost £25.50, free for children under 12 (bletchleypark.org.uk).
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