Thursday, June 25, 2015

Shutford Day 4–In Which There is Codebreaking, Mushy Peas as Art Form, and the English Take Their Pigeons Very Seriously.

If you have seen The Imitation Game or watched The Bletchley Circle, then you will have heard of Bletchley Park, the centre for codebreaking in the UK during WW2. After our day of doing sweet-f%$#-all, we were all up for the challenge of a long drive to check it out.


Even though it happened over 70 years ago, England’s role in WW2 still dominates the psyche of most of the country.  It is impossible to turn on the radio or TV here without hearing or seeing a program about the War, shops are full of kitschy WW2-themed paraphernalia, and many of the country’s tourist attractions manage to work into the experience their role in the War, small or large. If you find all this intriguing, as I do, then it is fascinating to pay attention to the stories of how one country came together in a massive way to bring about victory. Some of these stories took place at Bletchley Park and involve the men and women who lived and worked a secret life intercepting and decoding enemy messages. Most well known was the work of Alan Turing, the brilliant mathematician who worked as part of a team to invent the Welchman-Turing Bombe (not the exploding kind) that was able to break the code of the allegedly unbreakable German Enigma machines, but there were other brilliant men and, specifically, woman who contributed hugely to the codebreaking efforts. It was especially good for Zoe and Terra to see the role these women played.



Here they are intercepting a German radio message.

The site is laid out much as it was during the war with a mansion house in the middle and various huts and outbuildings around it. Many of the huts have been recreated to look exactly as they did during the war and with no glass or barriers, it felt like the occupants of the various offices had just gotten up for a tea break and would be back at any moment.





It all felt very authentic, including the original wartime signage that is up everywhere.


The place is so authentic that the movie The Imitation Game was partially filmed at Bletchley Park. To add to the atmosphere, some of the sets and props were left in place as they made them, including the bar. No barman though.


Bletchley has one of the biggest collections of Enigma machines in the world. These are the machines used by the Germans to encode their messages. We saw a demonstration of one and if I could remember 1% of what he said, I would be thrilled, but basically, if you type in a letter ‘a’ the rotors on the machine first change it to another letter, then they change that letter to another letter, and then that happens for a third time, and then if it is one of 10 common letters, it goes through a plugboard which changes it again. At the end of this process the Enigma has 158,962,555,217,826,360,000 different settings. This is why the Germans thought it to be unbreakable.


All this was fascinating, but not half as much as the actual Welchman-Turing Bombe that has been rebuilt and is now on display. I was looking forward to a demonstration but Tuesdays are ‘Engineering Day’ when repairs are made. This was actually a bonus as it meant that ‘Christopher’ as it was called in the movie was wide open and a few of the engineers were working on it: pouring over plans, turning knobs and dials and generally looking like they knew what they were doing



Again, trying to actually understand how it all works is quite challenging. At times, what they were saying made no sense at all:

Bob: And so you see here, the dial on the caterpillar breakfast lodgepole pine, sit here and have your nails done whilst I pizza this one quintillionth for the bus driver olay biscuit barrel.

Me (to Terra): Did he say one quintillion for the bus driver or one brazillion for the taxi driver?

Terra: What?

Bob: If you’ll just watch this here, it will make more sense. Once again, the Bonobo Apes newspaper the moth to the ceiling yoyo, and I’ll have three vases of apples with my stain remover large cedar beams pass me the broom.

Me: This is so complicated. Is he speaking in some kind of code?

Terra (to Zoe): What was that about the ceiling yoyo? Did he say to newspaper the moth to the yoyo or below it?

Zoe: I think what he meant was to pillow the brown bag to the rose bush, then back up down the street to the lawyer pole, then shovel twelve otters noses.

Terra: Ok oh that makes more sense. I get it now.

Me: How do you guys understand this?

Bob: And in closing, phetang phetang.

Terra and Zoe: Yes that’s right, phetang phetang.

Me: I am going to have to buy a book or something. Oh look, here’s Alan Turing’s teddy bear!


We tried to refuel our brains at lunch time but it was a particularly nasty lunch. My mum’s came with mushy peas, that British staple which provokes one question in me and that is Why? Peas are fine as they are all on their own, why ruin them by beating them into submission first and then adding God knows what to the mix.These ones were so horrible that we resorted to sculpture as an artistic outlet for our feelings about the mushy peas, and also the equally horrible chips that came with the meal as well.



I am thinking of submitting it to the Tate Modern with the title ChipHenge, of course.

One of the best things I saw at Bletchley was an exhibit on homing pigeons and their use during WW2. It was in a tiny little room (the exhibit, not the War) and I nearly missed it which would have been a real shame as I would not have seen this little gem of a brochure:


I kid you not, and no, I did not Photoshop this, although I wish I had. Apparently, homing pigeons were used extensively during the war, sometimes flying hundreds of miles with key messages, to the point that they were recognized for their contribution to the war effort. Pigeons. That’s right, pigeons.
There was a medal specifically for pigeons, known as the Dickens medal, which was bestowed on many of our feathered friends during and after the war for their devoted service.


I can’t help but wonder if pigeons have any sense at all of anything other than ‘do not get eaten, go home, get food’ and if they really deserved a medal for just doing what they do but really, what do I know about it and why shouldn’t they get medals anyway? They look quite good in their little pigeon uniforms with their pigeon medals around their little pigeon necks. I actually love the whole thing and applaud the English for their silly seriousness once again.

I one day hope to be asked to design the next brochure for the Navy Trout service which saw units of Brown and Rainbow Trout charged with carrying intel upstream during WW2. You laugh now, but just wait. It will come out. There will be a movie.

It was a long day and we needed to get home as it was Terra and Zoe’s turn to make dinner, and I didn’t want to miss that. We all enjoyed Bletchley Park immensely and I would recommend it highly although I am going to suggest you watch the movie first about 62 times, and maybe do some reading. Especially about the breakfast lodgepole pine as that is tricky to understand. If you do figure it out, please let me know.

Twangs for meading,




  1. Chips in mushies is code. You're supposed to decipher it, not eat it. Dad.

  2. OK. I've deciphered it. It's a close encounter of the third kind. M is the Chosen One - no surprise there. The meeting will happen at the standing stones. Madame M, I envy you."

  3. Why did I not see this important information until just now?

  4. Why did I not see this important information until just now?