Bletchley Park is a former country estate, with a large house in an undistinguished late Victorian style. During its time as the headquarters of UK cryptanalysis efforts in World War II, its grounds began to fill with huts, followed by massive information-processing blocks. In the postwar era, elements of the intelligence services remained until much of it became a telecommunications training school. It is located in the Home Counties of England, equidistant between Oxford and Cambridge, about an hour north of London, now encroached upon by archetypal developer-speculative suburbia, at the edge of the New Town of Milton Keynes. It can be seen as an under-acknowledged cauldron of information-processing experimentation, a cinematic cypher, and a prism through which we can view British senses of wartime, class, transatlantic power, stunted modernity, the military roots of the information age, and relations to ruin and redevelopment (fig. 1).
There are a series of binaries at work in representations of Bletchley:
revelation and coyness
display and absence
depth and surface
Different approaches to a site of myth—redevelopment, nostalgia, mystery, and technology—are here explored in a primarily photographic journey.
Codebreaking relied on finding a “depth,” a sequence repeated nearly, but not quite identically, across messages, allowing intuition and computing power a space to pry apart the logic of the underlying mechanisms. Different approaches to our experience of the site might function similarly.
There were two main code systems broken at Bletchley: Enigma, which was based on a (relatively) straightforward mechanical system, and Lorenz, a much more complicated proposition. With Enigma, code wheel settings could in theory have been broken by hand, but it would have taken far too long to go through all the possibilities. Alan Turing suggested a means of mechanization of the attack on the codes (the Turing “bombes”).
The Lorenz cipher was considerably tougher; the answer was the world’s first semiprogrammable computer, Colossus, run on thousands of valves for high-speed switching. While Turing’s theoretical insights suggested general approaches to the problem, and indicated desirable qualities and capabilities of a computing machine, the device was, in fact, suggested and designed by a Post Office engineer named Thomas Flowers, influenced by the mathematical intuitions of Bill Tutte. Flowers’s prototype met with skepticism and some resistance from the theorists, but it worked the first time out and broke its first code settings in less than an hour.
Flowers never received due recognition for his work; he had to watch the glory showered on the ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer) system as the world’s first computer and to endure humiliations from his employers, as he could not reveal the true source of his certainty that electronics and not analog servos were the communication tools of the future. As a working-class Londoner, his voice was returned to the lower orders after the war.
The mythology of Bletchley Park is all about the small: small huts, small huddles, a few initiates. The real Bletchley Park grew to a complement of over nine thousand staff. Codebreaking was an industrial, not artisanal, process. Bletchley as dreamtime, as place of public imagination, is paradoxical. Half-known and constantly recirculated legends persist in public discourse alongside factual accounts, interspersed with significant silences and gaps. Enigma stories have more traction than Colossus stories, despite the latter’s greater significance. Vagueness persisted; as late as 1996, writers could still refer to “Turing’s Colossus” (Edwards 1996).
Postwar uses of the site included a Diplomatic Wireless Service transmission station, as well as a telecommunications training school for the General Post Office, which would subsequently become privatized as British Telecom. The site was abandoned in 1992, and the Bletchley Park Trust began operations to work with the remains.
In terms of the remaining structure and its consequences for understanding, the master plan document puts it succinctly: “Whilst a central area of the site has operated as a museum for the past decade, a lack of resources and sale of outlying parts of the site for development—without controls to capture some of the value created to effectively contribute to conservation of the historic assets of the whole—has limited the potential to bring forward a considered and holistic plan for conservation and renewal at the Park” (EDAW Consultants 2005).
Cramped suburban terraces, in standard UK developers’ idiom, subsidized with tax breaks, have been built over the margins of the site and now cover the site of the famous Block F: the true origin-site of the computer age (fig. 2). The end of the Cold War meant the abandonment of the site by the intelligence agencies, while the privatization of the General Post Office and its transformation into British Telecom meant that the link to a historic sense of ownership was broken. Telephone training moved, and the site margins were parceled up and sold off. This process continued into the era of the trust; conflicts of interest led to senior resignations, and the current trust has to plan and build within limited parameters. Block G is inside the conservation area but not within the site perimeter: a limbo. Paradoxically, this in-between state makes it peculiarly valuable as a site for reverie, historical musing, and experiencing an analogue structure to the “Ur-site,” the now-vanished Block F (fig. 3).
Between Blocks B and D, to the north of the site, a large model submarine sits in front of the TS Invincible, which is a Portakabin-style structure that is home to the Milton Keynes Naval Cadet Corps (Milton Keynes is over sixty miles from the sea).
This twenty-five-foot model of a VIIC U-boat carries no markings or identification. There is no interpretation or contextualization. Depending on the cultural baggage of the visitor, it can represent either U-571 or U-559. The former is a fictitious film (2000), set in the Atlantic in 1942, in which American sailors battle this submarine and recover an Enigma machine and codebooks, thus shortening the war. The incident fictionalized in the film was, in reality, an attack on submarine U-559, which was forced to the surface in the Mediterranean by HMS Petard.
The submarine crew attempted to sink the U-559 and then abandoned it without destroying their codebooks, which were retrieved by two Royal Navy officers from HMS Petard, at the cost of their lives, and by a ship’s boy, who survived. A museum allowing an uninflected and fictionalized reading of its own origin myth may be considered unusual (fig. 4).
Behind the submarine in the left-hand photograph is Block D, now used as storage for the National Museum of Computing collection. It is not currently accessible to the public.
Anachronistic Yellow: Listen to Britain
The indeterminate submarine and its competing national narratives of conquest floats as a metaphor for the relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom, in the same way in which the Trafalgar Square sequence of the film Enigma (2001) places us in relation to the idealistic, longed-for nation of Humphrey Jennings’s Listen to Britain (1942). In Enigma, Bletchley worker Hester Wallace (Kate Winslet) waits for moody protagonist and tormented codebreaker Tom Jericho (Dougray Scott) on the steps of the National Gallery. War is over, normality is restored, and finally real love, as opposed to obsessive, delusional love, is celebrated. Codebreakers are now once again civilians. The “ordinary Britons” of Jennings’s film are foregrounded as the story reaches toward its exit scene. The acid yellow colors of its finale—as the lovers drive into their cinematic future through fields of rapeseed (barely grown in England before the 1970s) places our sense of genetically modified, technologically determined springtime into theirs.
Splitting: Half a Past
You are inside the gates. In theory, sites of wonder await. But not all doors are open. Decisions involving access, health and safety issues, managed decline, and restoration priorities have left their mark on the visitor experience. Simulations stand in for artifacts. Hut 11 uses props for the Enigma film in re-creations of the real Bombe room (fig. 5). The site is the original; the contents are imaginary.
Pathos and a tragic narrative arc bookend Alan Turing’s memory, with his teddy bear and a framed formal apology for his treatment from the last Labour government on display in the galleries. Again, the focus is on Enigma.
Over one hundred volunteer guides meet every month to discuss the content and route of the tour, which is evaluated in terms of contemporary preoccupations. The duration of the walking tour has recently been cut down due to the increasing age and frailty of visitors. Discussion of Colossus on the tour is reduced to a parting request to remember to visit the National Museum of Computing. A gesture is made across the open green space, to a peripheral set of huts. This empty space, once the courtyard of Block H, was the final dismantling and burning site for most of the Colossus machinery. Many visitors have already expended energy on the near- random range of displays accommodated on the site: a garage of vintage vehicles, model railways, and a slowly clearing clutter of heritabilia. It is an impossibly vast distance for tiring aged legs. Return to the bus is inevitable for most.
Fons et Origo
The place has been well looked after, but as Waterhouse draws closer, he can see black lianas climbing up the brickwork. The root system that he glimpsed in the Underground has spread beneath forest and pasture even to this place and has begun to throw its neoprene creepers upwards. But this organism is not phototropic—it does not grow towards the light, always questing towards the sun. It is info-tropic. . . . Bletchley Park has roughly the same situation in the info world as the sun does in the solar system [fig. 6]. (Stephenson 1999: 143)
Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon mines the atmospherics of Bletchley for its grounding of contemporary connectivity in war and the mercantile—a Virilian novel of compressed epochs, communication limits, and Borgesian labyrinth. Although it is a more conventional novel than it at first appears, the inchoate sense of information as life-form expressed by “Waterhouse” in this text attest to an extraordinary explosion of network, speed, and social organization that will come to have such consequences for the postwar world.
In reality, motorcycle couriers and communication cables were the information lifeblood of the park. Increasing volumes of transcript would arrive, undergo processing, and eventually form the information stream. But what then?
What could be done with this ceaseless avalanche of paper? Improbably, the small town of Thetford in rural Norfolk became the final destination for the waste of Bletchley. Under armed guard, the tapes, papers, teleprinter reels, and notes were shredded and pulped, mixed with resin, and pressed into Thetford Pulpware (Grace’s Guide 2007). This was a patented form of reinforced papier-mâché. Finally, the material was transformed into baths, trays, bowls . . . and motorcycle helmets. Motorcyclists arriving at the park, in its later stages, could conceivably be wearing protective gear made from previous deliveries. Noise into Signal into usable and unreadable Noise. In this light, Bletchley Park can be seen as an unexpected precursor of ecological parsimony.
Limbo Spaces and Amnesia
A known unknown: what was Colossus really used for after the war? Two machines survived, at least one of which was still working in 1960 at Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ)—Bletchley’s successors—in Cheltenham. Coyness prevails; hints of its use in relation to the American National Security Agency (NSA) and also its potential to check “one-time pad” systems for true randomness are all that remain.
“The Newmanry’s Colossi might have passed into the public domain at the end of the fighting, to become, like the ENIAC, the electronic muscle of a scientific research facility. . . . The history of the computer might have unfolded quite differently with such a momentous push right at the beginning. Churchill’s order to break up the Colossi was an almighty blow in the face for science—and for British industry” (Copeland 2006: 172).
A New Kind of War Monument
Bletchley Park is a site formed through absences and evasions . . . and thus perfectly suited to be a new kind of battlefield monument. Current preoccupations with cyber attack, computer warfare, botnets, and so on remind us that the warfare of the future could well be . . . boring. In our imaginative preparation, the mythology of Bletchley Park, with its thousands of attentive Wrens, tweeded intellectuals, and tireless technicians, allows us to hover between the two poles of Zen-like concentration, on the one hand, and an empirical ability to bear and function in an immense tedium, on the other.
Alain Resnais could make a very British Marienbad of Block G, the new pandemonium. Unfortunately, it may be too late to write a story of the coming of the information age, as seen by its protagonists. Information may want to be free, but the history of information is everywhere in chains. These chains are sometimes official, sometimes organizational, sometimes habitual.
What now exists: mold and paint peel, battery efflorescence, broken floors, a bucket. Sounds of the railway, remnants of telephone training facilities. For those who valorize the actual, the genuine, and the original, Bletchley Park is a very partial and unsatisfactory experience. A site whose own story cannot be completely acknowledged makes for an ambiguous relationship with history. Attempts to trade on the “charm” of lingering secrecy seem slightly forced. For others with a nose for the cover story, the unrenovated, and the near-truth, the conserved but not preserved zones, in the no-man’s-land between heritage and developer, have their own particular charm. The unrestored, exhausted spaces of Block G exude a calm and contemplative atmosphere, where the behaviors generated by massive information systems were first formed. A parallel might be drawn with the more successful sites adapted by squatters: mired in legal ambiguity, the problem of what to do with such places is dismissed. A contemplative, usefully silent place to reflect on the British half-fulfilled modernist dream is the result (figs. 7–9).
We are so attuned to the vividness of the virtual that the encounter with the crumbling “National Code Centre” at Bletchley Park seems to accelerate the aging process. The phantasms of Baudrillard’s code, the ecstasy of digitality and the caress of the tactical and tactile, violently recede when faced with the dinge and despair of an English suburb and abandoned telecom buildings overrun by weeds and vandalism. . . . almost none of the machines function; only the reconstructed Colossus computer, first switched on in 1943, bears witness to that machine heritage. Unlike Freud who experienced the uncanny wandering in the red light district from which he could not escape, for us the machine is the thing that creates unease, not by producing dissatisfaction, but by the real’s taking such license with the virtual. (Hegarty and Gonosko 2009)