Visiting Bletchley Park

A local college offers free study weekends for the “young at heart” over fifties.  I am not sure we qualify as young at heart but I liked the sound of one of the activities on offer a functional Mathematics study day and a visit to Bletchley park home of the wartime code breakers.

I very much enjoyed the film “the imitation game” particularly Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance as Alan Turing and was keen to see the place where it was set. It is over fifty years since I studied mathematics at school so I thought a refresher course would be good and might even  get the grey cells working.

The Discover weekend

We arrived at the college on Saturday and I was surprised to see how many over fifties were prepared to give it a go.  In England the retirement age for women has gone up to 65 and for both men and women it will soon be 66.  Many participants were women in their fifties who were keen to add a qualification to their C.V. There were also a good smattering of people like us who have already retired. I think my husband at 78 was one of the oldest.

One of the morning activities was planning a party for 50 people and bringing it in on budget which was quite good fun and certainly tested our basic maths skills. We had to estimate the amount of flooring and length of fairy lights needed for a marquee. As well as plan the type and quantity of food we would need.

The college provided us with a tasty lunch of cottage pie and fruit crumble .  Then in the afternoon we took a short test. They will send it away to be marked and if we pass we will get our certificates in a few weeks. The day finished with tea or coffee and lemon drizzle cake.

Bletchley Park

The large red brick mansion at Bletchley Park.
The rather grand mansion at Bletchley Park now houses a restaurant where you can enjoy lunch or afternoon tea.

On Sunday we got up early and my husband drove us to the college where a coach was waiting to take us to Bletchley Park. The journey took about two and a half hours and on the way we watched “The imitation game”  so that we could understand some of the background to the work done at Bletchley Park.

Bletchley Park is a beautiful mansion  near Milton Keynes which was bought by M16 the top secret government department   responsible for spying.  We learnt that a network of code breakers had been built up during the Spanish Civil war and when the Second world war was declared they received a message “aunt Flo is ill”. This was instruction to go to Bletchley Park.

Eventually almost seven thousand people worked at Bletchley Park. They were a strange mixture of university educated mathematicians, linguists, typists and amateur radio hams. I was surprised to learn that more women were employed there than men.

A plaque on the wall at Blechley Park
A plaque inside the manor with a fitting Shakespearean quote.

The big prize was cracking the German Enigma code.  The German code was thought to be unbreakable and it changed very day. Alan Turing and his team were able to build a machine to crack this and from about 1942 we were able to read the German messages. They were helped in this by the earlier work of Polish mathematicians.  Staff at Bletchley Park  had to keep this secret and were not able to act on many of the messages they deciphered.  It is thought that their work saved many thousands of lives. A particular success was ensuring that U boats did not attack the D day landing ships.

Churchill, the Prime minister was a big supporter of Bletchley Park and made sure they had sufficient funds to carry out their work. He also made sure they had leisure facilities including a tennis court.

As well as cracking the enigma code teams worked on deciphering Morse code messages and deciphering codes in other languages including Japanese.

I found the exhibitions extremely interesting. The displays included a lot of  fascinating quotations from the ordinary people who had worked there.

As we walked around the grounds we heard sound effects such as a spitfire flying overhead or an old lorry backfiring which added realism.  We were able to enter some of the huts where the decoding took place and see a replica bombe machine which was built to crack the Enigma code. There was also a very interesting exhibition on the part played by homing pigeons as messengers.

Part of the bombe machine used to crack the enigma code.
Replica bombe machine (stock image)

The practicalities

The Bletchley Park site  has a restaurant and two cafes. To add authenticity our drinks were served in wartime tin mugs. There is a playpark but I think younger children would be bored.  It is open everyday except for a few days at Christmas.   You need to allow three or four hours to see everything and real enthusiasts might need longer. Every where is accessible for wheelchair users or pushchairs but some of the paths are gravel. In the summer you can picnic by the lake. Entrance costs from £18.00 and  tickets are valid for a year. You can book a free guided tour with a volunteer guide or pick up a free audio guide. There is also a well stocked souvenir shop.

A wartime office recreated inside Bletchley Park
This office inside the mansion has been lovingly recreated.

Discover courses

If you live in or near South Gloucestershire and are over fifty. You may want to see what other Discover courses are available. You can do one English and one Mathematics course  which are held at the Wise campus in Stoke Gifford. Other coach trips this year include The Tate Gallery, London  and Stratford on Avon (English) and Exeter, food and Wine fayre (Maths). I thoroughly recommend it for a weekend with a difference.

This post has been added to link parties for blogging grandmothers and I would be interested to learn if other colleges offer similar opportunities.

An old Chad Valley teddy bear wearing checked shorts.
Alan Turing’s teddy bear on display

16 Replies to “Visiting Bletchley Park”

  1. Young At Heart (I love that!) activities and Discover courses, what a fab idea. This sounds like a great trip; I’ve never been to Bletchley Park but I’d like to go. A nice touch that you watched The Imitation Game on the coach ride there. I do think £18 for a ticket is rather steep, that’s the kind of thing that would really put me off going, even though it sounds like an insightful visit. xx

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