National Codes Centre
Bletchley Park, once Britain’s best kept secret, is now a heritage site and museum, with exhibitions, activities and events. The ornate Victorian Mansion here was headquarters to intelligence staff during World War II. The Park’s code breaking successes helped shorten the war by around two years, saving countless lives. Visitors can check out the tales of spies and strategic deception.
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Bletchley was the home of the first electronic digital computers and the birthplace of GCHQ, today’s Government Communications Headquarters. Bletchley Park was Churchill’s Secret Passion and he called its Codebreakers his “geese that laid the golden eggs and never cackled.”
Bletchley Park’s story tells of a desperate race against time, pitting Britain’s best brains against Hitler and his chief commanders. Bletchley Park was at the heart of the world’s biggest secret communications network. It began in 1938 and at its peak employed 10,000 people (women outnumbered men), all sworn to secrecy. They lived in the nearby town and Woburn Abbey during the time. Huts were also built in the 55 acres on the site as more employees were recruited. On site was a social club, and dances were held in the mansion ballroom. Other diversions were available in the town of Bletchley.
The World War Two Codebreakers’ mission was to crack the German Enigma machine and decode other seemingly unbreakable messages. Odds against their success: 158 million, million, million. The codebreakers reward? ‘Ultra’ Intelligence that saved Allied convoys carrying essential supplies from U Boat wolfpacks on the prowl. So effective was Bletchley Park that the decoded messages sometimes reached the Allies before the enemy.
The Bombe was a machine invented and used to help with the decoding. It used the most advanced technology available in 1941. A replica is on display.
Technology designed to do the job of code breaking is on display and exhibitions tell the full story. There’s also a maritime display (models of naval and commercial vessels) and a home front display that includes rationing, evacuation, the Blitz and more.
The National Museum of Computing, on the site, is the home of Colossus, the world’s first electronic programmable computer. The museum also houses the largest collection of functional historic computers in Europe. Visitors can follow the development of computing from the 1940s through 1990s with new working exhibits regularly added.
Another attraction in Bletchley Park is the National Radio Centre. It’s a showcase for radio communications technology. The centre covers the history and technology of radio communications from the first inventors in the late 19th century through to future radio developments. Visitors can view films, use interactive displays, do hands-on experiments, and be able to “go on air” at the amateur radio station.
Bletchley Park's Cafe is housed in the code breaking hut where the wartime Naval Intelligence Section was located. There’s a small lake complete with wildlife and a children’s playground. Special events are held throughout the year at Bletchley Park.
Bletchley, Milton Keynes, MK3 6EB
Note: exact location map on the website; easily reached by train from London for a day trip
Tel. 0 1908 640404
Open: March-end Oct, daily, 9.30am–5pm; Nov-March, 9.30am–4pm; closed 24–26 Dec and 1 Jan; National Museum of Computing times are different: Colossus is open daily, rest of museum Thu and Sat, 1-5pm in summer, until 4pm in winter—check website for special open days; National Radio Centre is open Thu, Sat, Sun, 11am-4.30pm
Shop; special events; parking; restaurant; playground; lake
Web: Bletchley Park
Web: National Museum of Computing
Web: National Radio Centre
Note: Exhibits we were told that would be discontinued 2014: large collection of toys and domestic artefacts related to everyday life in the 1930s and 40s includes toy soldiers, model trains, model vehicles, toys, dolls and teddies. Also a display on pigeons detailing their work in WWI and WWII and a wartime mini cinema and a Churchill collection.
Note: We suggest allowing a minimum of three hours for your visit. It's an easy train ride from London and short walk/taxi ride from the train station. Be sure to have lunch in the "canteen".
Photos and text © by Barbara Ballard