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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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).
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!
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.
The Imitation Game
The film, 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.
- Bletchley Park is open daily, apart from some dates over Christmas. 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. 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.