We also served
Go to Bletchley Park. Do it at once. It has had love and money thrown at it in equal measure, and it shines through. There are fifteen separate high-quality exhibits, and I cannot stress enough how very, very brilliant they are.
You will need at least four hours. Really, you should take six.
Go and see the replica Bombe machine. It clacks merrily away in a room full of machines that were used in this quiet corner of Buckinghamshire to win a war. It’s explained by a cheerful old fellow⁰ who patiently explains the Enigma’s encryption process to a room that is split, 75/25, between eagerness that borders on fetishism and polite bemusement.
That talk happens in a two-storey converted house, and the upstairs contains real former employees talking about their experiences on video scattered through impressive visual displays.
Do get the multimedia guide, because it’s absolutely riveting. A huge amount of research has gone into it, and experiences from veterans who served here have been captured for posterity. My favourite was an extremely upper-class woman: she talked nonchalantly about working alongside these fellows who were very close to genius, but seemed close to homicide when asked what they were like: “very untidy!” was the curt response. It also comes with a pair of natty headphones that give you an immensely jaunty air:
Do not go to the shop if you like both books and a full bank balance: you will leave without one or the other. For me, I chose books.
I’ve come away with a spectacular haul of slim puzzle books, a thicker puzzle book, and The Code Book by Simon Singh. I can’t commend it enough: it’s fascinating and completely absorbing. I am entirely hooked, and I offer any one of my readers the opportunity to commune with me via Vigenère cipher.¹ My inbox is open.
Throughout the site are various exhibitions designed to get you to understand how Enigma works. I was about three hours through before I felt reasonably sure I got it — there was an immensely enjoyable 3-D X-Ray rendering of the innards of an Enigma machine and it sparked a lightbulb moment. It feels as though everything is designed with that sense in mind: a feeling on the part of the people who built these exhibits that they themselves could barely believe that this had happened. The massive concentration of brainpower that was unleashed there is really quite something and it’s testament to a principle I cling to today: free up people to do good work and they will stun you with their brilliance.
They will also sometimes hurl coffee cups into the lake rather than return to the canteen, where their thought processes will be interrupted by people talking to them. Accept that as part of the cost of doing business.
There is a reek of privilege everywhere. It really can’t be avoided — as much as it’s played down, the people who were recruited were those privileged few who’d had the opportunity to learn German, Japanese, Italian and so on at school. Daughters of aristocrats were the first called up to support the staff because “We can trust that sort of person to keep secrets”. It’s a sign of the times: today, all three branches of the security and intelligence agencies are making massive progress to recruit more diverse individuals.
Let me close by saying that there’s a restaurant in Hut 4 that serves incredibly tasty, fantastically cheap food to refuel you after the literally tens of kilometres you’ll walk. And if nothing else it’s a lot of fun to walk around and, with hundreds of other people, quietly mutter
Hang on, say that bit again?
⁰ Don’t expect to see many women. Although there are many fascinating exhibits about the Wrens —members of the Women’s Royal Naval Service — there wasn’t anyone presenting that wasn’t a robot or a cheerful old fellow. It was a bit surprising, and something I hope will change soon.
¹ I’m sort of tempted to build a decoder based on the fascinating methods contained in the book, but I fear it has both already been done and would be of interest only to arch-geeks like myself.²
² To be fair, this is also a point in its favour.