Bletchley Park and TNMOC: the cracks between the codebreakers
Bletchley Park is used to being on a war footing. Its code-breakers helped bring an end to the Second World War, with mathematicians including Alan Turing toiling to crack German messages encoded with the Enigma machine, and even inventing the first electric computers to do it.
Now it faces an “enemy” much closer to home. Next door, in fact. After receiving £4.6 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund to refurbish its crumbling huts, Bletchley Park has fallen out with its once-close neighbours at The National Museum of Computing (TNMOC), the money seemingly driving a wedge between the two sites’ dedicated volunteers.
Indeed, an 8ft wire fence – ironically referred to as “Checkpoint Charlie” by staff – now divides the two heritage sites that, until recently, used to allow visitors to pass freely between them.
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Take a look at our photos of the renovations of Bletchley Park
We visited Buckinghamshire to find out what caused two of the guardians of Britain’s computing heritage to fall out so spectacularly.
Cracking at the join
Bletchley Park is now synonymous with code-breaking, but the war-changing efforts of Turing and his fellow crackers were kept secret by the government until the mid-1970s. The estate returned to prominence in the mid-1990s when supporters fought to save it from falling down or being overtaken by the encroaching property developers. Although they won that battle, a new one has begun.
Among the many wonders at Bletchley Park, there’s one disappointment: your visit to the code-breaking site doesn’t include a look at Tunny or Colossus, two of the famous machines built there to help break German codes. Working replicas of these famous early computers are actually on display at TNMOC. Although the museum is housed in Block H of the site, admission requires visitors to pay a £5 fee in addition to the £15 it costs to tour Bletchley Park.
For many years, the split between the two historical centres was barely noticeable. Visitors on a guided tour would be taken to see the machines at the end of the hour-and-a-half walk. Now, this visit has been cut from the tour – and a large metal fence has been erected, dividing the two sites that share so much history.
The fence is symbolic of a long-bubbling dispute between the Bletchley Park Trust and TNMOC, which came to light at the start of the year in a BBC report. The report shows a long-time Bletchley Park volunteer moments after he’d apparently been dismissed for refusing to keep to a new, shorter tour plan that cut out TNMOC.
“They’re ruining this place,” said Tony Carroll, with tears in his eyes. “We’re all very upset about not being able to tell the story we want to.”
The report put Bletchley Park on the back foot, with people posting on its Facebook page to say that they were deterred from visiting. One declared herself “horrified” by the BBC report, saying: “We don’t want ‘Disney comes to Bletchley’.”
Only a few years ago, the idea that Bletchley Park would be a compared to a glossy theme park would be laughable. In 2008, it was in a “desperate state of decay”, according to then-director Simon Greenish.
“The mansion requires urgent repairs,” he said at the time. “We’ve started on the worst of it, mainly the roof, but there isn’t enough money to finish.”
Thankfully, after fundraising efforts from the trust and its supporters, the money started to trickle in. First came a £250,000 grant from the government, followed by donations of hundreds of thousands of pounds from tech industry supporters and English Heritage.