Looking for somewhere to take the kids this summer? Try this hidden gem in Buckinghamshire, says Hannah Dunleavy, where science and history collide.
Perhaps it’s the way it’s laid out, or the sheer volume of things there are to do on the enormous site, but it’s refreshing to see that, despite this, there are never the bottlenecks of impatient children you often see when there’s something to press or play with.
The Road to Bletchley Park is a compact and interesting exhibition about codebreaking in the first world war, when the forerunners to the famous codebreakers began to perfect the art of snooping on their enemies’ communications. They had a number of huge successes, most notably the cracking of the Zimmerman Telegram between Germany and Mexico, which eventually led to America’s entry into the war.
One of the most striking things about the exhibition is the prominence of women; their names and faces are everywhere. At a time when they couldn’t vote or get degrees, it’s a reminder that, for all its horrors, World War I offered women the opportunity to prove their worth in a way never seen before. I can’t go on without mentioning Claribel Spurling, who joined the codebreakers near the war’s end and was the only person to score 100 per cent in the ‘impossible’ entrance exam.
We move on to the codebreaking area, where my nephew learns how to isolate a radio signal, translate Morse code, how the Enigma machine worked and how to speak basic military German (and why the hell not).
Elsewhere in the visitor centre, there’s another very hands-on exhibition, teaching children (and their parents) about internet security, where I learn that he’s young enough to not care if his parents know what he’s doing on the internet but old enough to know companies shouldn’t have access to his medical records. Smart kid.
And that’s all before we go outside to the huge park, home to the Mansion House – currently hosting an exhibition on the film The Imitation Game, complete with a replica Bombe; Block B, home to the Alan Turing Gallery and, during the holiday, Bright Sparks, where kids can play games and do crafts. The park also houses the National Museum of Computing and the huts used by the codebreakers during the war, many of which host exhibitions.
Before we leave, we decide to solve a 50-year-old mystery for my mum, whose first ever boss, a formidable but private woman, was rumoured to have done something very important and very secret during World War II.
Using a computer which allows you to search the database of all staff who worked at Bletchley Park, we find Miss Penelope Cavendish Storey, based from 1940 onwards in Hut 6 – where messages sent by the German army and air force were decrypted, translated and analysed.
We wander round the painstakingly recreated hut, complete with its hats on hooks and pipes on desks and wonder what Miss Storey might have done there. It’s a reminder of how many stories (no pun intended) Bletchley Park holds and a lovely way to learn history.
Want to know more about the codebreakers?
Cracking the enigma of Alan Turing: http://standardissuemagazine.com/in-the-news/cracking-enigma-alan-turing/
How they cracked the Enigma code: http://standardissuemagazine.com/in-the-news/breaking-code/
Hannah Dunleavy is the deputy editor of Standard Issue. She likes whisky and not having to run anywhere.