The rotten side of Bletchley Park: a photo story

12 Apr 2013

Britain's computing heritage is literally rotting away. One of the most famous buildings at Bletchley Park -- or what should be famous, at least -- is Hut 6, where much of the key work on the Enigma took place during the war, and the subject of the first British book to really discuss what happened at Britain's code-breaking centre.

Now, if you've ever been to Bletchley Park, it may sound extreme to describe it as rotting. Back in 2008, its supporters called for funding help, saying the estate "was in a terrible state of disrepair", and under threat of being lost entirely. Donations and funding poured in, and visiting the place now is a wonderful experience.

Indeed, the success of the initial rebuilding project masks how much work is still needed to save Bletchley Park. The buildings that are open to the public have been fully restored to their 1940s glory, with intriguing displays and magnificently rebuilt machinery. However, there's still a good deal of work to do.

While at Bletchley Park for the launch of Google's map editing tools in the UK, journalists were given a behind-the-scenes tour of one of the buildings that are about to be rebuilt.

Our first stop was into Hut 6, which is about to be renovated in order to be opened to the public for the first time.

To enter, we needed to wear hard hats. The ceiling was wobbly -- presumably from water damage over the years -- and the flooring had sporadically caved-in. The Bletchley Park fundraising team did not exaggerate the disrepair, it's fair to say.

From there, we walked around to D Block, where the workers of Hut 6 moved to because there were simply too many of them to fit into the original building's tiny rooms. At its peak in WW2, Bletchley had more than 8,000 employees. (Intriguingly, two-thirds were women, and the vast majority between the ages of 18 and 21.)

This building is more of a maze, with corridors slinking off in every direction. Our tour guide Joel Greenberg said that people who worked there during the war described to him that they moved around via tunnels -- there weren't any tunnels, but the hallways were so dark and small they felt that way.

Staff worked in three, eight-hour shifts -- well, they were supposed to, but often were so absorbed in problem-solving that they just carried on working. It's hard to imagine being locked down in such rooms, especially at night, unable to stop working because the necessity to crack codes and analyse data was so great.

This labyrinth-like building is a mess, however, so regular visitors don't see it. Visits are kept at less than half an hour, as there are concerns about the pigeon waste and asbestos; the two blobs on the floor at the end of this corridor are birds, and I'm afraid to say they weren't just having a nap.

Such dilapidation is a huge shame. The good people running Bletchley Park have worked wonders to get the main buildings rebuilt and ready for visitors; hopefully the support continues and these other historical locations can also return to their former glory and be opened to the public.

As Greenberg noted, the crytopgraphers are but one side of the Bletchley story -- the "sexy stuff", he admits. The additional space would allow the stories about the index team -- who essentially created a card-based database of all the information intercepted -- and the other intriguing work that happened here during the war to finally be told.

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