Last week, I hopped on a train and traveled about an hour northwest of London to Bletchley Park. Pretty much everyone knows from history class, or the films “Enigma” and “The Imitation Game”, that this is the legendary site where men and women worked tirelessly during World War II to crack the codes and decipher the messages being sent from Axis intelligence. It is estimated that their success in breaking the enemies’ codes shortened the war by two to four years, and that without Bletchley Park’s intelligence work, the outcome of the war would have been uncertain. That is how important the efforts of these mathematicians, linguists, chess champions and crosswords experts were, and why their work was a closely-guarded secret even up until the mid-1970s.
It was sunny and warm, utterly perfect, on the day I visited Bletchley Park. My tour began in a modern building which houses some cool interactive exhibits, such as trying your hand at finding and deciphering radio transmissions. Visitors are surrounded by photos, films and recordings which place them squarely into the dark, early days of the war, before they venture out to explore the buildings, huts and grounds of Bletchley Park.
(And though it is meant to be the last stop on the way out, well, it couldn’t be helped – I got sucked in. Bletchley Park has a divine gift shop. There are candies and cookies in replicas of wartime tins, books, posters, postcards, numerous accessories and apparel, and – my favorite – Bletchley editions of puzzle books like crosswords and Sudoku.)
Before heading out to the grounds, I stopped and picked up a headset along with a nifty audio tour Gameboy-looking device. Let me just say, audio tours are getting very sophisticated, and fun. This one gives visitors options at every location, from offering a brief history of a particular spot, to hearing voices of those who worked there, to solving a puzzle or two. Even with my chronic condition known by Cornelia and Emily as “museum legs”, I was able to take in and enjoy a great deal of the place before I got tired of my headset, went and bought an ice cream, and sat down on a bench by the lake to eat it.
(It should also be mentioned that Bletchley Park houses two cafes, each serving really tasty lunchtime fare made from locally sourced ingredients. I recommend the one in Hut 4, which was formerly the Naval Intelligence Codebreaking hut. Bletchley also has afternoon tea in the mansion on the weekends. Way nice.)
What has any of this got to do with Emily, Cornelia and Our Hearts Were Young and Gay? After all, the girls traveled to Europe in 1922, long before the hint of war. Even in 1942, when they wrote the book, Cornelia and Emily certainly wouldn’t have had the slightest notion of the existence of Bletchley Park.
Well, there is in fact a specific and rather astonishing reason for my visit to this historic site, which has to do with Our Hearts Were Young and Gay. This Spring, while I was doing research, I came across a very surprising claim about the book, and I wanted to find out if the report was true. It involved –
[NOTE: The rest of this post has been deemed classified – by me – for the present moment, with hopes that the full story of the strange report I discovered this Spring can be brought to light in the near future.]
Below: The blissful setting of Bletchley Park must’ve helped with the poor, frayed nerves of those working there; the “maudlin and monstrous pile” of the mansion house; proud swan parents and their fuzzy babies; the Enigma.