Volunteering at Bletchley Park

Last Sunday was Alan Turing Day at the park, and I was determined that "Neither rain nor snow nor gloom of night" (essentially the contents of the weather forecast for the day) were going to keep my from my first day's volunteering there. In fact the weather was much better than predicted, and we turned out not to need the "Dunkirk Spirit" that Kelsey promised. In fact it was only the fact that I was coming in from South London that provided the "gloom of night": an early start and the combined chaos of South West Trains and London Midland.

However, I was almost in time for the day's briefing, and a cheerful ribbing of "about time you did some work here" from the gate guard reminded me I was on friendly territory. I wasn't quite sure what to expect from my day; my duties were assigned as "roaming" (or "loitering", as it's also known), which boiled down to "we're expecting a lot of people, so wander 'round and look helpful". Given that it's pretty much impossible to get bored at Bletchley, that didn't seem too demanding a task, and I figured I could use the exercise.

Wandering proved to be a good start; fortunately the weather was much better than threatened ("light drizzle" or "British spring" would have been reasonable descriptions) and I got to familiarise myself with those few bits of the park I didn't already know and chat to some of the more experienced staff. They all proved extremely friendly, and free with positive hints and advice, and within a couple of hours I really felt like part of the team.

Perhaps due to the forecast the park wasn't quite as busy as we'd hoped, and I drifted into the Turing Bombe demonstration area in Block B, where I was able to show off the latest in Bletchley Park fashion, the rather fetching Enigma Rotors T-shirt. As a volunteer I got to take a good close look at the rebuilt Bombe which, like everything at Bletchley, just gets more fascinating the more you learn about it - thanks to fellow newbie P J Bryant for his expertise there! At some point I'm hoping to learn to demonstrate this machine myself. In the meantime however I parked myself next to a Service Enigma and (while I've not yet fully learned the tour script) was able to answer a few questions, and give a few (hopefully coherent!) explanations as to the role of the Enigma and the Bombe. Explaining it in French was an interesting challenge though!

Now, I've been interested in WW2 history for a while, and particularly the Enigma, so I know a fair bit about it, but the visitors still managed to test me, and I had some homework to do after (about 22000 Enigmas were built, we have about 6 on site, they're each worth a small fortune, and yes, one got nicked, it's upstairs). I also got to chat to, and learn from, some of the other volunteers, including the formidable Jean Valentine who was a Bombe operator during the war. As ever the day passed more quickly than I'd expected (Bletchley's winter opening hours aren't that long), but I was still happy to head back on the now-running trains as the early start began to catch up with me.

As one of the more distant volunteers (and with a full-time job!) I can't get to the park quite as often as I'd like, but hopefully I'll be there for most of the big events. I'm enjoying having a hobby that not only keeps my interest like Bletchley does, but also helps protect and promote such an important historical site.
Posted by parsingphase, 2010-03-05 21:38

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