BLETCHLEY PARK is one of the world’s great survivors.
The mansion, 50 miles northwest of London and dating to the late 1870s, was almost lost to the British nation twice. In 1938 a local builder was eyeing the parcel as a development site when the government stepped in, buying the property from the Leon family to house a Code and Cypher School.
And in 1992 bulldozers loomed again until local historians barred their path. Forming the Bletchley Park Trust, advocates saved the complex, where a secret wartime operation broke the German Enigma code, and recast the Park as a museum. Now appreciation for that act of preservation is reaching beyond Britain; of the site’s 150,000 yearly visitors, more and more hail from overseas. Those ranks will only swell thanks to The Imitation Game, the Oscar-winning movie about code-breaking genius Alan Turing.
During the 1920s and 1930s, the Park had been a country idyll, popular with shooting parties, until that 1938 purchase began the estate’s transformation into a hub of Allied counterintelligence work during the Second World War.
I visited on a raw December day with my father. Born in 1938, Dad grew up five miles away; he found it moving to return to a place he had not seen since leaving for Oxford University in 1956. As we neared Bletchley station he noticed through the railway car window a parking building on the spot where, during the bitter winter of 1947, he told me excitedly, had sprawled the coal yard to which his mother would send him to fetch household fuel.
The government chose Bletchley Park as a code breakers’ perch primarily for its location. With war against Germany imminent, Whitehall wanted its code wizards away from London and Luftwaffe bombs. The manse sits at a safe distance from the capital city, but within 200 yards of a railroad station. Nearby are the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, in the late 1930s fertile environments for recruiting the brilliant minds required for high-level intelligence analysis.
Entering the estate, one at first sees only motley brick-and-timber huts, splayed at odd angles like drab dominos. The bleak, utterly authentic scene makes it easy to picture streams of extremely bright young things, male and female, arriving hurriedly by foot and on bicycles three-quarters of a century ago.