Wanderer at Large: Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire & Berkshire – Bletchley Park

A tour guide’s all-time favourite UK places.

Sponsored by Your London Tours.

This September, Visit Britain, the marketing arm of the British tourist industry, is launching its ‘Great British Staycation Campaign’ to encourage people to holiday in the UK.

Soul City Wanderer (aka Frank Molloy) is one of the UK’s most accredited and experienced tour guides. Over three decades he has visited nearly every part of the country, touring many of the places that Great Britain and Ireland has to offer.

In a new blog series, he will list his all-time favourite five places by area (spiralling out from London*). These are personal choices, some obvious, some obscure.

This week, the area north-west of London that includes the counties of Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire & Berkshire.

Enigma and Bombe machines at Bletchley Park, by felix_winkelnkemper. CC license BY-NC-SA 2.0

Bletchley Park

Bletchley Park was the UK’s main decoding centre during WWII and the place where the cypher school famously decrypted the German Enigma machine.

Bletchley is 50 miles north-west of London on the outskirts of Milton Keynes. It was originally the site for a mansion built in 1711. In 1938, the head of MI6 bought 58 acres. It was perfectly situated on the ‘Varsity line’ between Oxford and Cambridge, from where they intended to attract staff.

In 1941, it became the home of the allied cypher school, the country’s main decoding centre in WWII. It was also known as Room 47 of the Foreign Office, a secret address. Bletchley additionally housed Station X, a secret radio intercept station.

The Enigma and Lorenz machines were responsible for the secret movements of the deadly German U-boats in the Atlantic. The code was changed every day by resetting three rotor wheels. With every key pressed the code changed. There were 158 million, million, million combinations. The discovery of the first Enigma codebook led to the formation of Bletchley Park. There are examples of the machines in the museum.

Enigma was deciphered through repetition and patterns. They had to work out the 26 possible alphabetical starting positions of the three rotors. They did this by assuming repetitive words, eg, that a message would start with the word ‘wetter’ (weather). By August 1941, the convoys had enough information to avoid U-boat attacks. Bletchley also played a crucial role in the Battle of Britain.

Many famous mathematicians and scientists were pulled in to work as part of the high-level intelligence team whihc was codenamed Ultra. In particular, the young genius Alan Turing (1912-1954). He had already conceived an imaginary machine that could solve mathematical problems: the concept of a programmable computer. In 1939, he started work at Bletchley Park as a code-breaker of Enigma. In 1941, he developed the decoding machine called the ‘Bombe’, named after the chocolate dessert. In 1945, he built Colossus: the world’s first digital computer. Tragically, Turing committed suicide in 1954.

At its height, 8,500 worked at Bletchley Park. The work of those at Bletchley Park is said to have shortened the war by up to four years.

Visitors can register for guided tours at no cost. These are really worthwhile. The audioguide is also very good, and is narrated by Stephen Fry. Parts of the site were used in the 2014 movie the Imitation Game with Benedict Cumberbatch playing Alan Turing.

Bletchley Park is a must for history and military enthusiasts.

Note: All sites mentioned were operating pre-lockdown. Please check relevant websites before embarking on any potential visit. Another recommendation will appear next tomorrow.

For the very best in guided private tours of the UK visit www.yourlondontours.com

*Operators in the UK tour industry often separate the areas of the country according to what touring can be achieved in a region in one day. As a London-based operator, my ‘map’ spirals outwards from the capital and is separated thus:

  1. London
  2. Northern Home Counties (Beds/Herts/Cambs)
  3. Eastern Home Counties (Essex/Suffolk)
  4. Southern Home Counties (Kent, Surrey, Sussex)
  5. Western Home Counties (Ox/Berks/Bucks)
  6. South coast (Hants/Dorset)
  7. Western England (Somerset/Gloucs/Wilts)
  8. South West England (Devon & Cornwall)
  9. Wales (north & south)
  10. Welsh Borders (Herefordshire/Shropshire/Cheshire)
  11. Western Midlands (Brum/Worcs/Warks/Staffs)
  12. Eastern Midlands (Northants/Leics/Rutland/Hunts)
  13. Northern Midlands (Notts/Derbys)
  14. East coast (Norfolk/Lincs)
  15. Yorks (all ridings)
  16. North West (Manchester/Merseyside/Lancs/Lakes/Cumbria)
  17. North East (Durham/Tyne & Wear/Northumberland)
  18. Southern Scotland (Borders/Lowlands)
  19. Northern Scotland (Highlands/Islands)
  20. Ireland (Northern/Southern)

Published by Soul City Wanderer

Soul City Wanderer is the alias of London journalist and author Frank Molloy, a writer on the city’s history and culture. Born south of the river, he has an MA in London history (Birkbeck) and lectures at various institutions including the Museum of London and the National Portrait Gallery. He is also a fully-qualified Blue Badge Guide (MITG), Westminster Guide and City of London Guide.

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