Friday, 03-07-2015. Day 317.
Codebreaking and Pancakes
After our Wimbledon adventure, we lounged around London for two more days, taking care of a few things we'd been putting off—like mailing a mess of goodies back home—and in general coming to terms with the fact that our trip was all too rapidly coming to an end.
I'd gotten pretty good at driving the left-hand-driving manual transmission Persephone (our rented Peugeot 308 SW) around England (a right-hand driving country). I even got pretty good at taking the country's numerous roundabouts like a champ. That is, until I came to Milton Keynes. This city, for some reason, has roundabouts leading into roundabouts, on top of roundabouts. I'm sure people who drive it every day get used to it, but for a newcomer driving a backwards car, the whole endeavor was maddeningly confusing.
Still, we managed to make it through the snarled roadways without incident to arrive at Bletchley Park.
Bletchley Park is where the codebreakers of World War II worked to break the codes the Axis powers were using. Something like 9,000 codebreakers, the most famous of whom was Alan Turing, worked on the 58 acres making up the estate, and their efforts are thought to have shortened the war by at least two years.
As we entered, the security guard told us the museum was closing in three hours. At the time, that seemed like a somewhat silly warning, but as it turns out, we used every minute of that three-hour allotment and could have used a lot more. There's so much to see here—everything from how the codes were broken to what life was like for the people living and working at the park.
Codes and ciphers (and the differences between them) are the main focus at Bletchley Park—even the security guards wore coded neckties—and the museum offers plenty of interactive computer models showing how the enigma machines work.
In addition to seeing numerous Enigma machines, we also saw the Lorenz machine, devised to crack the Nazi's "unbreakable" encryption, and a rebuilt Bombe machine, the predecessor of the modern computer devised by Alan Turing.
The Bombe was what the docents called a "super-Engima decryptor." It held numerous decrypting drums (five different colors, each representing a different Enigma machine) which did the work of 36 individual Enigma machines, greatly speeding up the codebreaking efforts. We got to see one in action. It was very noisy.
Worth noting: a ticket to Bletchley Park will run you £17.75 for adults and £10.50 for children ages 12-17 (kids under 12 are free), and the ticket is good for 12 months. We, obviously, weren't able to take full advantage of this year-long ticket, but there's so much to see and explore here, for anyone spending any length of time in London, this is definitely worth re-visiting.
I wrote more about our adventures wandering around Bletchley Park in a post over at GeekDad, so if codebraking and ciphers interests you, go check it out.
Milton Keynes was way too expensive for us to stay in for the night, so we drove 22 kilometers north to the small town of Olney in Buckinghamshire.
We didn't spend too long there, although we stayed in a nice Airbnb and enjoyed dinner at The Bull Inn (which sadly suffered a fire back in 2016—almost a year since we'd visited it—but it seems to be re-opening soon).
We didn't learn much about Olney, other than it's where the Olney Pancake Race is held every year on Shrove Tuesday (the day before Ash Wednesday, better known in the U.S. as Fat Tuesday). It's been an annual tradition since about 1445. The women of Olney, dressed in kerchiefs and aprons, gather together and run from the marketplace to the door of the local church some 400 yards away, all while flipping a pancake in a frying pan.
Alas, we were visiting Olney a few months after Lent and weren't able to see the race in person, but it sounds like a lot of fun to watch. Here's a video of the 2016 race.
Oddly enough, there's a similar race that's fun in the town of Liberal, Kansas in the United States. Each year, the two towns compete against each other to see which town is home to the world's best pancake racers.
So far, the ladies of Liberal are ahead with 37 wins to Olney's 29—although the 2017 race was declared a draw after someone in Olney forgot to start the timer.