It’s hard to overstate the importance of the work of the codebreakers at Bletchley Park during World War II. The information they supplied is thought to have shortened the war by at least two years and saved countless lives on both sides.
What happened at Bletchley Park was one of the greatest achievements of World War II and for decades no one knew anything about it, thanks to government secrecy and the sense of duty of people that worked there. Now it’s been turned into a museum.
You can visit the site where the codebreakers worked, see some of the equipment from the time, and learn more about what went on. It’s a lot to take in, so I have created this guide to visiting Bletchley Park.
Note: This post contains affiliate links. Please see disclosure for more information.
- What is Bletchley Park?
- Bletchley Park History
- Things to See at Bletchley Park
- Block C – Introduction to Bletchley Park
- The Grounds
- Mansion and the Early Days Exhibition
- Huts 11 & 11A – The Bombe Machine
- Hut 8 – Alan Turing’s Office
- Huts 3 & 6 – Restored Codebreaking Huts
- Teleprinter Building – Immersive D-Day Exhibit
- Block B – Cipher Machines
- National Radio Center
- Hut 12 – Temporary Exhibits
- Key Takeaways from My Visit to Bletchley Park
- Things to Do Near Bletchley Park
- More Places to Visit to Learn More about World War II in England
- Bletchley Park FAQs
- How much does it cost to visit Bletchley Park?
- How long does it take to visit Bletchley Park?
- Is there food available for purchase at Bletchley Park?
- Is Bletchley Park good for kids?
- Is Bletchley Park Covid secure?
- How do you get to Bletchley Park?
- Where is the best place to stay near Bletchley Park?
- Is Bletchley Park worth visiting?
- Expert Tips for Visiting Bletchley Park
What is Bletchley Park?
Bletchley Park, also known as Station X, is a country estate that was the headquarters for the code breakers and intelligence operations during World War II. Top codebreakers like Alan Turing, Dilly Knox, John Tiltman, Hugh Alexander, Bill Tutte, Gordan Welchman, and Mavis Batey all worked there.
Bletchley Park History
Bletchley Park was only used by the government intelligence agency during the Second World War. Before it was bought by the UK government, it was a family home. Later it was used for various types of training. Now it is a popular visitor attraction.
Bletchley Park Before the War
In 1882, Herbert Samuel Leon, a wealthy financier, bought Bletchley Park to be his family home. He expanded the existing red brick farmhouse building on the site. His business dealing were going well so he also purchased homes in Broadstairs in Kent and Ballater in Scotland. The family also had a home in London.
In 1937, after both he and his wife had died, the whole estate was put up for sale because the family didn’t want it. The British Government purchased Bletchley in 1938 so that the codebreaking efforts of the Government Code & Cypher School (GC&CS) could be done in a rural location away from London which they knew would be a target of attacks. It would be easy to get to from London, Oxford, and Cambridge.
At the time war seemed inevitable, so 70 codebreakers were sent to work from the Mansion at Bletchley Park in September 1938. If any locals asked, they would say they were there for pheasant shooting season. The working conditions were cramped and chaotic, but they still didn’t have enough people to do everything.
Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain avoided war by letting Germany seize the Czechoslovakia territory, so the codebreakers returned to London after only three weeks at Bletchley Park. They learned some important lessons during this trial run.
Bletchley Park During the War
As war again seemed inevitable, wooden huts were built at Bletchley Park and GC&CS moved back in August 1939. Alan Turing and Gordan Welchman arrive on September 4, 1939, the day after war was declared on Germany. By April 1940, the site was operating on shifts to get coverage 24 hours a day.
They were tasked with breaking codes from two different complex German machines – Enigma and Lorenz. Germany and it’s allies believed their communications were secure and their codes were unbreakable. They had good reason – the number of permutations and daily changing of settings meant it was impossible to crack it manually – even with a huge team of people.
GC&CS would need machines to break the codes, which no once had done before. While the Polish had decrypted Enigma on a small scale and shared the results, at Bletchley Park they need to do codebreaking on an industrial scale, using machines they had to design, test, put into use – at scale and fast.
To achieve this, they developed the Bombe machine for the Enigma code, and the Colossus to crack Lorenz. Bombe machines were shared with US and Canada, and people from Bletchley worked with them to expand the scope of codebreaking operations.
The Germans also kept improving their technology and the team at Bletchley Park would have to keep up. Additionally, there were Italian and Japanese ciphers to be dealt with.
At the peak, in early 1945, there were around 10,000 people working at Bletchley Park and its associated Outstations. They were able to provide key information including locations of German U-boats, early warning of German air attacks, and more.
Bletchley After the War Ended
After the war, GC&CS changed their name to GCHQ and left Bletchley Park in 1946. Many of the people who worked at the site returned to their previous jobs. Since they had all signed the Official Secrets act, they would not speak a word about what went on at Bletchley Park. Many took the secrets to their graves.
Follow GC&CS’s departure, Bletchley Park was used as training school for the Control Commission which governed Germany after the war. Later it was a teacher training college and then a training center for the Civil Aviation Authority and the General Post Office (GPO) which turned into British Telecom.
In 1992, a group of local historians saved the site from destruction. The Bletchley Park Trust was formed to preserve the site for future generations. It first opened to the public as a museum in 1994. In 2009, Bletchley Park received support from the Heritage Lottery Fund and was able to do essential restoration.
With over 250,000 visitors each year, it is now a self funding historic attraction. They are continuing to restore more buildings (Block A, Block D, and Block E) so they can be opened to the public. Who knows, maybe one day it will be designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. It certainly has the history to be added to the prestigious list.
If you want to read more about the history of Bletchley Park, you might enjoy this book.
Alan Turing at Bletchley Park
Alan Turing may be the best known codebreaker that worked at Bletchley Park. He was a mathematician and had written academic papers on ‘Universal Machines’ before the war. Today he is considered to be the father of computer science.
During the war, Turing was heavily involved in the design and deployment of the Bombe machines, both at Bletchley, and distributing the technology among the other allied nations. He developed techniques like ‘Barbarismus’, that used statistical analysis & logic to increase the probability of successfully decoding a message.
Alan Turing After the War
Turing was given an OBE in 1945 for his wartime services. He turned his focus to artificial intelligence in his paper, Computing Machinery and Intelligence (1950), which provides a method to determine if a machine is intelligent or not. While he referred to it as the “imitation game”, it is better known as the “Turing test”.
Unfortunately, Alan Turing’s personal life did not conform to 1950s social norms. He was homosexual. Since being gay was a crime at the time, he was charged with ‘gross indecency’. Turing pleaded guilty on March 31, 1952 and chose to undergo hormonal treatment and probation to avoid imprisonment. He was found dead on June 8, 1954. It is widely believed that he committed suicide from cyanide poisoning.
In 2009, Prime Minister Gordon Brown issue an apology to Alan Turing, which you can see at Bletchley in Block B. Queen Elizabeth II issued a pardon four years later.
Things to See at Bletchley Park
Bletchley Park includes several different buildings such as the Mansion that have exhibits inside. Let’s take a look at the different things you should see when you visit Bletchley Park. It’s best if you go to the different buildings in the order listed.
Block C – Introduction to Bletchley Park
Today, when you visit Bletchley Park, you enter at Block C also called the Visitor Centre. There is an introduction video that explains the importance of the site. Then there are a few exhibits that cover:
- Difference between a Cipher and a Code
- The Steps in the Codebreaking Process
- Overview of the Machines
As you walk from building to building, take time to appreciate the peaceful grounds of Bletchley Park. Keep your ears open to hear (audio recordings of) the staff playing tennis and dispatch riders coming and going.
Also be sure to check out the Memorial to the Codebreakers, by the artist Charles Gurrey, next to Block B. It’s two, eight foot high bars of Caithness stone interlinked at the top to show the relationship between those that worked at Bletchley Park and those that intercepted transmissions at the ‘Outstations’.
One block has ‘We also served’ written on it in a way that almost looks like a code. The other one has a list of some of the 300 plus outstations that existed across the world. It’s a good reminder of all the people working hard behind the scenes during the war.
On the back of the memorial, there is also a Morse code message which says ‘My Most Secret Source’. This was one of Churchill’s famous expressions used to refer to the intelligence gained from the work at Bletchley Park.
You might want to take advantage of the picnic tables or lounge chairs to relax. The view of the Mansion from across the lake is picturesque. Given the stressful environment that was Bletchley Park during World War II, it was important for the staff to have the outdoor space to decompress.
Mansion and the Early Days Exhibition
The Mansion is where it all started and the hub of the operations at Bletchley. You can go inside to see some of the rooms on the ground floor including Commander Denniston’s office, the Library, the Ballroom, and more.
Commander Denniston’s office was the first room we saw. The sign on the door said “Admin” and the furniture was unassuming, so at first, I didn’t think it was his office. Just think about all the intense conversations that must have taken place inside this room.
The last room in the Mansion has the Early Days exhibition which tells the story of how GC&CS moved to Bletchley Park and expanded. You learn about why Bletchley Park was chosen, the process of moving and getting set up, and then how operations expanded.
The Mansion was a weird mix of office and home, but they made it work. The intricate woodcarvings and decorative ceilings stood out to me especially when compared to the other humble blocks and huts onsite.
*If you book in advance, you can enjoy afternoon tea in the dining room of the Mansion at Bletchley Park.
It is fitting that inside the two garages there are displays about wartime vehicles, transportation, and dispatch riders. You can see some period cars that were used in the 2001 movie Enigma and a motorcycle that would have been used by a dispatch rider.
Dispatch Riders (known as Don R’s) had quite an important and difficult job. Coded messages were intercepted at wireless stations (known as Y stations) along the coast (like Beeston Hill in Norfolk). It was the Dispatch Riders’ job to collect these messages and bring them to Bletchley for decryption.
In 1939, the Blackout began, so at night there would be little light. By 1940, all signs that could identify locations including street signs were removed. These strategies were designed to confuse the enemy, but also made travel for dispatch riders challenging.
Walk past the garages and you can see the gate where dispatch riders would have entered the site. They would deliver up to 3,000 messages a day.
While you can’t go inside any of the buildings in the Stableyard, you should still walk through the area. In the early days of the war, Alan Turing and Dilly Knox (along with other codebreakers) worked in these cottages and made the first breaks into Enigma here.
One of the cottages in the Stableyard was also a home. Mr. Budd, who was Head of Work Services, and his family were one of only two that lived onsite. He had two young daughters. They probably thought all the activity around them was normal until the secrets of Bletchley Park came out when they were older.
As you walk back towards the tennis court, you will see the Polish Memorial. It pays tribute to the achievements of three Polish mathematicians – Marian Rejewski, Henryk Zygalski, and Jerry Rozyki – who shared their work on Enigma with the British in 1939. They had broken an earlier version of Enigma in 1933.
Huts 11 & 11A – The Bombe Machine
These huts were built specifically to house the Bombe machines developed by Alan Turing and Gordan Welchman to speed up the process of figuring out the daily Enigma settings. Later, as more Bombe machines were made and placed in Outstations away from Bletchley. Hut 11A became the UK Bombe control centre and was also used to train operators.
Enter Hut 11A first to see the exhibit that tells the story of how they developed the Bombe, how it works, and more. There is a replica Bombe machine on display too. Then in Hut 11, you get an idea of what life was like for the operators who were female naval personnel called Wrens. It was an intense 24-hour a day operation in hot and loud room.
Hut 8 – Alan Turing’s Office
Alan Turing was the Head of Hut 8 where they worked on deciphering German naval communications. Information learned here helped decrease the destruction from the U-boats in the Atlantic.
You can step inside Alan Turing’s office which has been restored to wartime conditions and picture him hard at work. Also, in Hut 8 there is an exhibit about pigeon communication and a few interactive panels where you can test your codebreaking skills.
Huts 3 & 6 – Restored Codebreaking Huts
Huts 3 and 6 have been restored to what they would have looked during World War II to give you an idea of how the staff worked. German Army and Air Force messages were deciphered inside Hut 6 and then the messages were passed on to Hut 3 for translation and analysis.
The entrance to Hut 6 is right by the exit of Hut 8. We almost missed it as the door was closed.
Teleprinter Building – Immersive D-Day Exhibit
In 1941, the Teleprinter Building was erected as the communications hub. Intercepted messages would come to this building first before being distributed around the site. They also used the Teleprinter building to send intelligence to Allied headquarters and other government departments.
Now, the Teleprinter Building hosts the Immersive D-Day Exhibit which was quite eye-opening to me. While you are waiting to be allowed into the theatre, there are some displays about planning the D-Day mission. The film uses many screens of different sizes to create a visually appealing and powerful presentation.
I didn’t realize the key role the codebreakers played in the D-Day invasion. Through intercepted messages, they could confirm that Hitler did believe that the Allied troops would land in Calais. It is thought-provoking to wonder how things might have been different without this information.
Note that there is a one-way system in place, so the exit from the theatre does not lead back to the exhibit.
Block B – Cipher Machines
We could have easily spent hours inside the Block B Museum as it contains so much information. Some of the highlights include:
- Timeline of British Intelligence starting with World War I
- Detailed explanation about how the Lorenz machine worked and how that code was broken
- The History of Enigma and how it worked (There are several Enigma machines on display at various points around Bletchey Park reflecting that there were several different designs in use throughout the war).
- Overview of Japanese Code including how they created their own Morse code
- The Computing Legacy including the development of Colossus, the first large-scale computer
- Sculpture of Alan Turing, his story, and some of his personal belongings
- Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s 2009 Apology to Alan Turing
- How GC&CS Become GCHQ
National Radio Center
The National Radio Center is located just outside the exit from Block B. Here you can learn about the basic principles of radio, the history of radio communication, and learn about some unique uses of radio. You can also experiment with the building blocks of a radio system.
Hut 12 – Temporary Exhibits
Hut 12 used to be located next to the Teleprinter Building and Block E as an annex to Hut 3. In 1943, it was moved to its current location and used for music classes and orchestral evenings. Now it houses temporary exhibitions.
During our visit, the temporary exhibition was Never Alone which deals with personal data and some of the issues it causes today. It makes you think about who holds your data and what the consequences could be. They had polls where visitors could vote, and I thought the results were surprising in some cases.
Key Takeaways from My Visit to Bletchley Park
Visiting Bletchley Park was an eye-opening experience for me. Before I didn’t realize how complicated the codes were and how forward-thinking the machines developed here were. The staff at Bletchley Park, the dispatch riders, and those working at other outstations were dedicated and made a lot of sacrifices. They served the country without the recognition they deserved.
I also didn’t realize the important role women played at Bletchley Park. There were more women working here than men. They were responsible for intercepting wireless transmissions, transporting messages and staff, compiling information, operating codebreaking machines, receiving and sending communications, and keeping everything running smoothly. There were also women with specialist skills that did codebreaking and traffic analysis.
Things to Do Near Bletchley Park
If you have more time in the Bletchley Park area, there are a few other attractions to visit.
National Computing Museum
At the National Museum of Computing (TNMOC), you can see the world’s largest collection of working historic computers. Learn about how computers evolved from the Turing-Welchman Bombe and Colossus of the 1940s through the large systems and mainframes of the 1950s, 60s and 70s, to the personal computers and the internet.
While the National Museum of Computing is located in Block H on the Bletchley Park estate, it is managed by a entirely separate charity, so you will need separate tickets to visit. Get more information here.
The MK Gallery has five large gallery spaces that host a diverse range of art exhibitions. The Sky Room hosts contemporary films, concerts, lectures, and comedy nights. Get more information here.
Milton Keynes Museum
Housed in a former Victorian farmstead, this museum covers the history of the Milton Keynes area, starting from 1800 onwards. It also includes the Stacey Hill Collection of rural life, memorabilia from the nearby Wolverton railway works, a variety of historic telephones and switchboards, and has some historic Post Office and British Telecom vehicles. Get more information here.
More Places to Visit to Learn More about World War II in England
If you want to learn more about World War II after you have visited Bletchley Park, there are plenty of places you can go in England.
- Churchill War Rooms – Visit the underground rooms in London where the British government directed the Second World War. Get more information here.
- Dover Castle – See the Secret Wartime Tunnels which served as the headquarters for Operation Dynamo which rescued over 330,000 Allied soldiers from Dunkirk beach in France. Read about the things to see at Dover Castle.
- Dover Cliffs – Walk along the beautiful chalk cliffs, then tour the Deep Fan Bay Shelter where soldiers would go for cover when there were bombing attacks during World War II. Read more about visiting the Cliffs of Dover.
- Imperial War Museum – Founded while World War I was still ongoing, the Imperial War Museum is the world’s leading museum of war and conflict. It gives voice to the ordinary people forced to live their lives in a world torn apart by conflict. They are planning on opening new galleries on World War II and the Holocaust in 2021. Get more information here.
Bletchley Park FAQs
How much does it cost to visit Bletchley Park?
An adult ticket for Bletchley Park is £21. Those under 12 can visit for free and there are discounts for those over 60, students, families, local residents, English Heritage members, Art Pass holders and more.
Tickets bought directly through Bletchley Park can be converted into an annual pass, so you can enjoy unlimited free returns for one year. Buy your tickets here.
How long does it take to visit Bletchley Park?
If you want to see everything at Bletchley Park, you will need the entire day. It’s a lot of information to digest, so you might want to take advantage of the annual pass and visit over two days.
Is there food available for purchase at Bletchley Park?
Yes, there are a few cafes around the site and they also offer afternoon tea in the dining room of the Mansion. Afternoon tea must be booked 48 hours in advance. If you want to bring your own food, there are plenty of picnic tables on site too.
Is Bletchley Park good for kids?
Yes. While kids will probably not understand all the technical information, there are many hands-on exhibits that kids will enjoy. Throughout the exhibits there is technology and video to keep the kids engaged. When the kids need a break there is a play area close to the Mansion.
The temporary exhibit, Never Alone, will be thought-provoking for kids because it will make them think about how they use their devices.
Is Bletchley Park Covid secure?
Yes. They are operating at a lower capacity and you need to book a timed-entry slot. You will need to check in using the track and trace app when you arrive.
They have staff making sure that each building doesn’t get too crowded, so there may be a short wait at times. Face masks are required inside and there are plenty of sanitizer stations around the grounds. They have also temporarily disabled all the audio recordings where a shared headset would have been used. Guided tours are also suspended and all purchases need to be made by card.
How do you get to Bletchley Park?
Bletchley Park is located in Buckinghamshire just on the edge of Milton Keynes. It is easy to get to on public transportation as the Bletchley train station just a five-minute walk away. If you are coming from London, you can catch the train at Euston Station and the journey is about 40 minutes.
You can also drive to Bletchley Park. Just use Sherwood Drive MK3 6DS in your Sat Nav. There is free parking on site.
Where is the best place to stay near Bletchley Park?
When it comes to finding a place to stay near Bletchley Park, the best options are in Milton Keynes a few miles away. Here are a few to consider:
Doubletree by Hilton Milton Keynes – This hotel is built into the Stadium MK, home to MK Dons Football Club and Marshall Arena. The modern rooms have luxury beds, LCD TVs and free WiFi. Onsite there is a Marco Pierre White Steakhouse Bar & Grill and the MK1 shopping and leisure park which has a great selection of high-street stores and an Odeon IMAX cinema. Check reviews, price, and availability here.
Peartree Lodge Waterside – All the rooms here are en-suite and have a flat-screen TV, desk and tea/coffee making facilities, refrigerator, and ironing facilities. Some rooms overlook the Milton Keynes Barge Marina. Check reviews, price, and availability here.
Chicheley Hall – If you are looking for something with a bit more charm and character, about 7 miles from Milton Keynes, you can stay at Chicheley Hall, a Grade I listed mansion set on 80 acres, dating back to the early 18th century. It’s surprisingly affordable. Check reviews, price, and availability here.
Is Bletchley Park worth visiting?
Yes. Being able to visit the secret place that had such a significant impact on the outcome of the Second World War is extraordinary. True heroes worked at Bletchley Park and to be able to walk in their footprints is special. As I learned more about the work that they did and the challenges they faced, I became even more impressed.
Have you been to Bletchley Park?
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Disclosure: Thanks to Bletchley Park for hosting us so that we could share our experience with our readers.
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Last Updated on September 6, 2021