Bletchley Park and The Imitation Game

Earlier this year I took the kids to Bletchley Park, home of the famous code breakers. I loved the visit, primarily for its sense of atmosphere and untold secret history. Yet whilst my kids enjoyed it, I couldn’t help but feel that a lot of the explanations and exhibits went over their heads.

Bletchley Park mansion

Bletchley Park mansion

I never got around to writing up our visit but when I heard about the release of The Imitation Game, a film about the code breakers, I knew it would add an extra layer of understanding for the kids. I was right. Watching the film provided a fantastic visual explanation of some of the key work and if your kids are of the right age I’d certainly recommend combining both; read my reviews below.

Bletchley Park

We visited Bletchley Park just before the opening of the new visitor centre and refurbished huts so there was quite a lot of restoration work taking place. The visitor centre is now open so there’s more to see than I’ve reviewed below.

First a tip; buy a guidebook at the start of your visit. It’s excellent and makes for interesting reading. It also contains a map of the site, which I would have found useful if I’d bought it at the start rather than as a souvenir! There was a lack of maps around the site (presumably due to the restoration work) so we found it hard to work out where to visit. I’m still not sure if we saw everything.

Block B recreation, Bletchley Park

Block B recreation, Bletchley Park

Our visit started in Block B where wall boards tell the story of Bletchley Park. It was interesting to read about the lives of people who worked there (particularly the women) and the secrecy that surrounded them. There were several recreated exhibits which showed typical working spaces and a gallery dedicated to Alan Turing. In addition to a collection of Enigma machines there’s a fully operational Bombe machine; a guide was attempting to explain its workings during our visit but I’m afraid I lost track.

Enigma machine

Enigma machine

The Mansion was the headquarters of the Bletchley Park operation, and initially housed the code breaking sections. It’s the most recognisable building in the film, and it is incredible to stand in and imagine the events that have previously taken place within its walls. A slightly less cerebral craft activity was taking place in the Mansion on the day of our visit and the kids had great fun making decorative birds from pine cones. I’m sure there must have been some kind of cryptography link but I don’t know what it was!

Finding out about work on the Bombe

Finding out about work on the Bombe

After the Mansion we visited the huts. Hut 11 was probably our favourite as it housed the Bombe machines and had various kid friendly activities to complete. Hut 4 contains the cafe which we took advantage of during our visit. Huts 3 and 6 were closed for restoration but are now open having been refurbished and kitted out as if they were still in the 1940s.

There is so much more to the Bletchley Park site. My son salivated over the restored cars in the garage, whilst I liked the Polish memorial which celebrated the achievements of three Polish mathematicians who contributed hugely to the code breaking efforts (not mentioned in the film).

Completing the Wrens' training exercise, Bletchley Park

Completing the Wrens’ training exercise, Bletchley Park

Bletchley Park has just opened a new exhibition to celebrate the release of The Imitation Game; this runs until November 2015. Definitely a good reason to revisit especially as my entrance ticket allows unlimited admission for a 12 month period.

The national museum of computing

After our visit to Bletchley Park we popped to a different part of the site to see Colossus, the world’s first electronic computer. The thing that struck me most was the building it’s housed in. We visited on a warm day and the windows were wide open to try and encourage cooling. It’s a world away from the air conditioned data centres of today!

Colossus computer, National Museum of Computing

Colossus computer, National Museum of Computing

As we visited during the holidays the museum had additional activities for kids, involving programming, coding and operating Lego robots. These were the highlight of the visit for my kids so do keep an eye out for them. I noticed the museum’s website is advertising free ‘Weekend Codability’ sessions for children up to the age of 16 years until at least August 2015.

The Imitation Game

The Imitation Game is based on the true story of Alan Turing, the mathematician genius who helped break the Enigma code at Bletchley Park during World War II.

The film starts in the 1950s, when police start to investigate Turing’s life following a break-in at this house. Turing tells the policeman, via flashback scenes, about the war years when he and his colleagues worked in top secret helping to decode German messages. The story focuses on the building of the Bombe machine, and incorporates the relationships between Alan Turing and his colleagues and the web of misinformation the war produced. There are also flashbacks to his teenage years at Sherborne in School, including one harrowing floorboard scene.

Benedict Cumberbatch portrays Turing brilliantly. Some reviewers suggest that he is the sole outstanding actor in the film yet I thought Charles Dance who played the part of Commander Denniston was excellent too. However I’m afraid the posh English accent of Keira Knightley rather got on my nerves whenever she spoke!

Is The Imitation Game suitable for younger children? The film has a 12A rating, primarily for its references to homosexuality and a couple of swear words. My kids already knew about Alan Turing’s life story from their visit to Bletchley and I’d explained how being gay was illegal until the 1960s. I was concerned with how the film would end (I don’t want to give anything away, but if you know the life story of Turing then you’ll know what I mean) but there were no explicit scenes. Instead the ending is relayed by words on the screen.

My daughter, aged 12, rated the film 9.1 out of 10, and it was definitely a thumbs up from her. My son is a little younger and whilst he understood the story he was confused by some of the flashbacks until I explained them afterwards. I’d therefore hesitate to say that it’s suitable for children much younger than 12 but as always it depends on your individual family. From an adults perspective, I loved the film and would highly recommend it.

More info:

  • Bletchley Park is open daily, apart from some dates over Christmas. Adult tickets cost £15, children aged 12-16 cost £9, children under 12 are free. To get the most out of Bletchley I’d suggest an age of around 12+ years although younger children with a particular interest in maths or computing would also enjoy.
  • The National Museum of Computing is on the same site but is a separate attraction. Entrance costs £5 for adults, £2.50 for under 18 years. The Colossus Gallery is open daily, the rest of the museum opens Thursday-Sunday afternoons. If you are just visiting Colossus there is a reduced entrance fee.

A magical experience at the Harry Potter Studios, Herts

A slightly different post for you today. A couple of weeks ago I met Chrisi, who blogs over at Reprobate Mum. Chrisi has two children, Jonah and Ava, and blogs about family life in London. She asked whether I’d be interested in featuring her review of their recent trip to the Harry Potter studios. I’m always interested to find out about different places to visit so of course I said yes.

Over to Chrisi……

It was a half term treat the whole family was looking forward to. Just a 45 minute drive outside East London, we promised the kids a trip to Harry Potter studios nearly a year ago as a shameless bribe to get them more interested in books than Minecraft. This was back when Jonah was on the verge of becoming an independent reader. He’d got a bit stuck on Beastquest and persuading him to read anything else was proving a bit of a challenge. Of course, he’d watched a few of the less scary Harry Potter films, but we’d always said he should read the stories before he saw the darker films. But he needed an additional push to get him started on the books. So reluctantly, with a trip as the incentive, we left him in bed with that first chapter of The Philosopher’s Stone and the rest is history. Within a week he’d polished off the first instalment and by the time the summer holidays were over, he’d finished the lot.

So when Nana Zoo offered to treat us all to a family ticket for Ava’s sixth birthday treat, we jumped at the chance, even though I knew Jonah, nearly nine, would get more out of the day. At 80 odd quid for the four of us, it’s not a cheap day out, but no more expensive than, say Chessington, or one of the other theme parks where you feel obligated to have *thebestdayever* because you’ve parted with so much up front. But there’s no such guarantee of thrills and spills here, Universal Studios this is not, so it’s better suited to tweens than little ones.

Entrance to Harry Potter studios

Entrance to Harry Potter studios

Set on a quiet film lot in darkest Middlesex, where what looks like the depths of Mordor are currently under construction in another lot nearby, we are greeted by the gigantic scary chess figures that made such an impression in the first film, but apart from that, it’s a fairly unassuming entrance; more like a giant warehouse than a tourist attraction. Stepping inside, you are greeted by blown up pics of the stars and the flying car used by Harry and Ron in the 3rd book (forgive me if I’m wrong, I’ve read most of them as I was a child myself when they came out in the 90s, but I’m no expert) alongside the usual merchandising orgy.

You are offered a timed slot when you buy your tickets, and most people take about three hours to wander round, although you can take as little or as much time as you like. The record is eight hours, we were told as we were ushered, along with 100 or so others, into a holding room that began the tour with cinematic aplomb.

harry_potter4

Nothing can quite prepare you for the screen to recede, and to be transported outside Hogwarts’ formidable entrance and into the Great Hall. Graffiti-carved benches sit on flagstone floors, trestle tables are laden with food that magically never goes off, and ghostly mannequins sport original costumes worn by the stars. It is an overwhelming experience for devoted fans, perhaps only surpassed by the moment where you realise the seemingly rock solid walls are paper thin and held up by scaffolding. It is an uncanny experience echoed around the rest of the attraction.

Displays of props are whelming in their detail, and sets of the Griffindor Common Room, Dumbledoor’s study and the Weaselys’ living room at once transport you and remove you from a sense of the familiar and strange. Yet, for children captivated by the stories, this is a lesson that teaches all is not what it may appear, but, with the magic removed, little ones may lose interest in the feat of workmanship that has clearly gone into bringing it all to life.

For younger visitors, issued with a passport on arrival, strategically placed snitches are hidden around the various sets and displays, with stamp embossing machines dotted around to keep them engaged in spotting and stamping while their parents marvel at the detail. A green screen broomstick attraction provides a distraction from the many props and scenery, enabling visitors to dress in robes and capture a video of themselves swooping over the castle. While we were happy enough to fork out a further £20 for two pictures of the kids, the video package was deemed too steep at nearly £50, even though our outing was essentially a gift to us.

Having been terrified by a living dementor, we edged towards the exit from part one of the attraction, and a chilly brew of super-sweet, but nonetheless delicious butter beer (like foamy cream soda) in the incongruous location of Privet Drive, set cheek by jowl next to the Potter family home and the Hogwarts bridge. It’s hard to believe scenes like this could be filmed in so tight a space, but marvelling at the construction aside, my one grumble, considering the price, is, instead of the cosy mock up of the Leaky Cauldron I had imagined, refreshments are only available sat outside on drafty wooden benches, which I felt was a bit of a lost opportunity But that’s because I’ve been to the set-up for tourist attractions, rather than a visitor attraction retrofit of a real life studio.

The second half of the tour begins in the animatronix department, where latex goblin and troll masks vie for space with giant spiders, followed by a stroll up Diagon Alley where Olivander’s Wand Shop jostles next to Gringotts and the Weasley boys’ Joke Shop. A wander past scale models of sets and scenery opens to the money shot, for which we were completely unprepared. Rising like a mountain, with a spiral walkway travelling vistors around it, is a scaled model of the whole of Hogwarts, used to create wide angle shots of the castle and grounds, complete with Whomping Willow, turrets aplenty and the famous bridge where Harry and his peers once swooped so realistically.

It really is fascinating and we spent a good ten minutes marvelling at the incredible detail, before wandering through the “wand department” where every person who worked on the entire eight(?) film productions has their own named wand. In the fabulous gift shop we couldn’t resist treating the kids to something special. A life-size Hedwig puppet was chosen by Ava, which twists its head and tweets realistically, though alas, only offline, and a wand for Harry – I mean Jonah, who was torn between Voldemort’s want and Dumbledore’s Elderwand, but thankfully plumped for the latter, with which he has been “accioing” ever since. Also Bertie Bott Every Flavour Beans for the whole family, whose flavours contain a mix of nice and nasty such as dirt and vomit so realistic they have lain uneaten for nearly two weeks.Given the proximity to Halloween, the trip felt even more apt, and it’s fairly safe to say, a cliche though it may be, we all had a magical day. Even if the contents of our wallets afterwards felt like a shrinking spell had been successfully performed upon them.

Thank you Chrisi!

Discovering Blaenavon’s industrial heritage

There aren’t many places where you can head underground into a coal mine, walk around the remains of a blast furnace or see how workers lived in the 1800s. You can do all of these, and more, when you explore the industrial heritage of Blaenavon in South Wales. And even better, every attraction we visited was free!

Blaenavon The town of Blaenavon was once a major iron, steel and coal producer. The subsequent closure of the ironworks and coal mine led to mass unemployment and a declining population. Fortunes were reversed when the industrial landscape of Blaenavon attained World Heritage Site status in 2000; visitor numbers have doubled since inscription and continue to grow. We spent a day dodging the rain showers and taking in the sights of the area.

Blaenavon World Heritage Centre

Our first point of call was the Heritage Centre. This houses a small exhibition dedicated to the history of the area and provides information about the industries which once dominated the landscape. A timeline runs around the walls of the room with key events and interesting snippets.

The kids weren’t so keen on reading the wallboards but they enjoyed using the interactive touch screens to find out more about how the families lived. My daughter spent ages creating a shopping list based on the typical income of a mining family whilst my son learnt about the jobs children used to do in the mines.

The cafe provided a good excuse to linger a while longer in the dry before heading out to the ironworks.

Blaenavon ironworks

Dating from the early years of the industrial revolution Blaenavon ironworks was once one of the biggest producers of iron in the world, and it accounted for the growth of the town in the 1800s. The iron was used, amongst other things, for making canon balls to use in the Napoleonic war.

I’ve seen the ironworks site described as a preserved ruin and I’d agree wholeheartedly with this. You can still see the Water Balance Tower (a water driven lift), calcining kilns and the remains of the blast furnace and there are audio points around the site to help you visualise what it must have once looked and sounded like.

Blaenavon ironworks

Blaenavon ironworks

This was the first Cadw site (Welsh government service which conserves historic environment) we visited on our holidays. In addition to the free access I was really impressed by the visual installations at both this site and the others we visited. At Blaenavon the walls in the blast furnace were illuminated with scenes and sounds from the ironworks, and at one point molten iron is seemingly poured and lights up the floor.

Inside Blaenavon ironworks

Inside Blaenavon ironworks

Probably the most famous part is the row of workers’ cottages which were featured in the Coal House reality series on BBC Wales. There was quite a lot of restoration work happening to the exterior of these cottages during our visit (hence no photos) but they were still open for visitors. Inside they are furnished as they would have looked at various points over the previous 200 years.

Inside the store, Blaenavon ironworks

Inside the store, Blaenavon ironworks

The houses all had narrow staircases, small rooms and a shared row of outside toilets. One had a piano which my daughter played until she got embarrassed when some other visitors arrived. The 1950s house bore a strong resemblance to that of my grandparents home; some of the furnishings looked very familiar! In addition to the houses there was also a recreation of the company shop which looked like a fun place for younger children to play in.

Big Pit National Coal museum

Big Pit was a working coal mine which closed in 1980. Nowadays it’s a major tourist attraction which offers visitors the option to go on a 300ft journey down into the mine. I visited the mine back in 1983 when it first opened and it made such an impact on me that in the intervening 30 years (gosh I feel old) it’s a place I’ve always wanted to return to.

Big Pit National Coal museum, Blaenavon

Big Pit National Coal museum, Blaenavon

It was pretty busy on the day of our visit so we joined the queue in the waiting room in readiness for our underground trip. It moved pretty fast, and despite initial impressions we only had to wait 20 minutes or so before it was our turn.

Before you head down, you’re given a helmet, lamp and battery pack to wear. We had to hand in ‘contraband’ as Big Pit is still classified as a coal mine. This included cigarettes and other items containing batteries, such as phones, watches and cameras. At this point my daughter discovered a random battery in her pocket which was hastily passed to me.

Big Pit

Big Pit

We were soon packed into the rattling lift which took us down into the mine. The underground tour lasts about 50 minutes and as the guides are ex-miners they have plenty of stories to tell. Our guide had strong feelings about the closure of the mines and it wasn’t difficult to tell his political allegiance!

One of the highlights was turning our lamps off to experience complete darkness. Although this was fun it was sobering to learn that young children would have to work in complete darkness if their candle blew out.

Ready to go down the mine, Big Pit

Ready to go down the mine, Big Pit

When I visited in 1983 there were still two retired pit ponies living at the mine. These are long gone now but you’ll be able to see the stables underground in the mine where the ponies once worked. Our guide told us how the ponies were entitled to two weeks holiday above ground each year. They loved it and were understandably difficult to catch when it was time for them to return underground.

Big Pit machinery

Big Pit machinery

In addition to the mine tour there are some attractions above ground. Set in the hillside, rather like Teletubbyland, we found the Mining Galleries, an exhibition of modern mining machinery. This is much more interesting than it initially sounds! After watching a short film, you walk through three display areas which are illuminated and have realistic sounds.

Lastly we visited the Pithead Baths where the miners (in recent years) would wash after their day in the pit. Nowadays these house exhibitions about mining life; the parts I enjoyed most were the real life stories of miners who had previously worked at Big Pit.

As a jaded forty-something no visit could ever live up to the excitement of my childhood experience but I do hope my children remember their day out as fondly as I remembered mine. If you’re in the area make sure you pay the town a visit!

More info:

  • The Blaenavon World Heritage Centre is open daily except Mondays. Entrance is free. We parked about 5 minutes away down the hill; this is also free.
  • Blaenavon Ironworks is open daily from April-November but is only open Friday-Saturday during the winter months so check the Cadw website before you go. Admission is free, but to get the most out of the site you’ll probably want to buy a guide book.
  • The Big Pit National Coal Museum is another free attraction although there is a £3 charge for car parking. It is open daily, with the last underground tour taking place at 3.30pm. Children need to be 1 metre tall to go underground and able to carry their own safety equipment which weighs about 5 kilos. The underground tour is accessible to wheelchair users but should be arranged in advance of your visit.

Family holiday challenge

Link

When I saw a competition inviting people to create a blog post about holiday memories and their dream destination I immediately knew where I’d write about…..Greece.

Zante. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Public domain

Zante. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Public domain

Perhaps it’s not the most exotic of destinations but I met my partner whilst working there twenty years ago and we’d love to take the children back. Although we wouldn’t go to the resort we worked in. We’re too old for that kind of party atmosphere nowadays!

My most vivid memory is of the food. On my day off I’d breakfast on thick yoghurt and honey accompanied by slices of watermelon. Lunch was usually a Greek salad; the salty feta cheese offset by the refreshing cucumber coolness of the accompanying tzatziki.

Greek salad: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons cyclonebill on Flickr

Greek salad: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons cyclonebill on Flickr

It wasn’t all healthy though. Our late night snack of choice was gyros and french fries drenched in a garlicky sauce. And saganaki (fried cheese) eaten in the restaurant opposite the airport, waiting for the new holidaymakers to arrive. I’m vegetarian nowadays but still have fond memories of the inevitable moussaka, served with rice and yes, more chips. I never developed a taste for ouzo so they were all washed down with an ice cold frappé.

However hard we try to recreate Greek meals at home they don’t quite taste the same. Supermarket tomatoes just don’t have that summery taste. And eating at your dining room table isn’t as tantalising as sitting in a small taverna with the water lapping just metres from your feet.

Our kids would love to visit the Greek Islands too as they’re not so keen on our current choice of holiday destination. They’ve created a video to help persuade the judges. Enjoy!

I’ll leave you with my funniest memory of Greece. The photocopier in our office kept breaking down as the sand blew through the window and got into the machine. There wasn’t a photocopier engineer on the island so the mayor (who owned the office) asked the local priest to bless it instead. I can still remember the surreal sight of the priest sprinkling holy water over the copier. Needless to say it didn’t fix it!

This post is an entry for the #Flying100 Family Holiday Challenge, celebrating how flying allows us to make memories and ‘be there’, in association with #Flying100. Find out more at http://www.flying100years.com/