Bletchley Park: see where codebreakers listened in on the Third Reich

Bletchley Park, bombe
You’d never know by looking at the cluster of nondescript buildings that they were the scene of the single most important effort to defeat Nazi Germany. During World War Two, Bletchley Park in Milton Keynes, England, was home to thousands of code breakers listening in on and analyzing German military transmissions. The site was so secret that its existence wasn’t revealed to the world until the 1970s.

It was here that the famous German Enigma and Lorenz code machines were broken, allowing the Allies to follow German troop, air, and naval movements. It’s impossible to say just how much this helped the war effort, but one intelligence historian, Sir Henry Hinsley, estimated it shortened the war by up to four years.

The work on Enigma was actually started by the Polish Cipher Bureau, which broke the Enigma code five weeks before the war started. They shared the information with their British and French counterparts. Although Poland was soon overrun, many Poles fled to the UK to continue the fight. The Poles also sent over a cloned version of the Enigma machine, which proved invaluable.

Of course the Third Reich continued to improve and change the Enigma code, but this early head start helped the Allies keep listening. The Polish machine was later used as the basis for the “Bombe”, a more sophisticated machine the British used to decipher Enigma transmissions. It’s shown above in this photo courtesy Tom Yates.

More than 12,000 people worked at Bletchley Park at some time during the war, the majority of them women. Cryptographers were recruited from universities as well as more unusual sources such as chess clubs. Basically anyone who had a knack for puzzles was considered desirable. In one famous incident, the Daily Telegraph hosted a contest to see who could solve their crossword in under 12 minutes. The fastest winners were offered a job.

Despite its obvious historic importance, the site has been struggling with funding for a long time. Now it’s had a change of fortune, with a £4.6 million injection courtesy the Heritage Lottery Fund and the listing of its Block C as a Grade II building, meaning it will be preserved for all time. Block C housed the massive library of punch cards used by Colossus, the world’s first programmable digital electronic computer. Colossus was used to analyze the sophisticated German Lorenz code.

Today most of the original buildings are open to the public and tell the story of the secret fight against the Axis powers. The original buildings house a wonderland of old tech, as you can see in the gallery to this article. The site also houses the National Museum of Computing and the Radio Society of Great Britain. Bletchley Park is within walking distance of Milton Keynes station, making it an easy day trip from London.

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London day trip: Anglesey Abbey

London day trip, Anglesey Abbey
London is one of the great cities of the world and you can spend weeks, even years, exploring it. Sometimes, though, it’s good to get out. The towns and countryside near London make for fun day trips and one especially pleasant destination is Anglesey Abbey, six miles northeast of Cambridge.

The Abbey got its start in 1236 when Master Lawrence of St Nicholas sold 600 sheep to pay for the construction of an Augustinian priory. It survived until its 400th birthday, when Henry VIII shut it down as part of his dissolution of the monasteries following his break with Rome and setting up of an independent church.

It then became a stately home and changed hands several times. It was spruced up in the twentieth century by Lord Fairhaven, who installed his large collection of art, remodeled much of the interior while leaving many medieval elements intact, and added a sumptuous garden. He left it to the National Trust when he died in 1966.

The 114 acres of gardens, lawns, wildflower meadows, and wildlife habitats make for a relaxing stroll. In winter months there’s still some color thanks to a special winter garden with 150 perennial plant species. There’s even a working watermill. The interior is preserved from another age, when lordly manors were still common. There’s the drawing room, the banquet room, even his Lordship’s wardrobe. The whole thing looks like something out of Brideshead Revisited.

This week archaeologists announced they had discovered artifacts possibly dating to the Bronze and Iron Ages (1000-100 BC) while excavating at the site of a future parking lot at the Abbey. This pushes the history of the site back many centuries. Once researchers study the artifacts, they hope to set up a display at the Abbey.

The best way to get to Anglesey Abbey, assuming you don’t have a car, is to take a train from London to Cambridge and then the number 10 bus from the station to the Abbey. Click here for more London day trip ideas.

Photo courtesy Martin Pettitt.

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The five most beautiful colleges of Oxford

Oxford
Oxford is the most beautiful city in England and makes a great day trip from London. What makes Oxford unique is its famous university with more than two dozen colleges. While each has its own distinct character, they tend to all be similarly laid out with one or more quads and a chapel. Here are five of the best.

Magdalen College
Founded in 1456, this college’s soaring Gothic tower on High Street is one of the most recognizable features of the city’s skyline. When this was the Royalist capital during the English Civil War, lookouts kept watch from the top for Cromwell’s troops and even kept a supply of rocks up there to drop on them! Today it’s more peaceful and every May Day morning a choir sings from the top in one of Oxford’s most popular traditions. Behind the tower is a large cloister surrounded by a covered arcade with Gothic windows. Passing beyond this you come to a bridge over a stream and a pleasant walk alongside a meadow where deer nibble at wildflowers or laze under the shade of trees in summer.

New College
Despite the name, New College is one of the university’s oldest, having been founded in 1386. Nobody knows how it got its name, although the greater mystery is why it kept it. Like Magdalen College, there’s a large cloister and two attractive quads. The gardens are especially interesting because one of the walls is actually the medieval city wall, built in the twelfth century. The garden, with its lush flowerbeds, medieval wall, and carefully tended lawn, is one of Oxford’s best.

%Gallery-131852%Keble College
Founded in 1868, Keble College departs from the Gothic style of most other colleges and is ornately Victorian with its bright red brick and ornate facades. The chapel looks almost Byzantine with its glowing gold mosaics. This makes for a real contrast from the other colleges and after you’ve seen two or three, come here to see something different. Keble College is overlooked by the majority of tourists so you’ll find it less crowded and more tranquil.

Merton College
This college is one of the university’s oldest, being founded in 1274. It’s also one of the best preserved and much of what you see dates back to the Middle Ages. At the front gate you walk under a 15th century carving of John the Baptist preaching in the wilderness and enter a quad of similar date with walls covered in ivy. The chapel here is my personal favorite, with an ornate rose window, lots of original medieval stained glass, and an altar painting attributed to Tintoretto. Check out the tombs of various Oxford scholars, including one from 1525 with a globe attached showing the world as it was then known. Two kings lived at Merton College. Charles I made it his home after he got kicked out of London during the English Civil War. Charles II lived here for a time to escape the Plague. Located on a quiet back street, it’s still a peaceful refuge today and not nearly as visited as Magdalen, Christ Church, or New Colleges.

Christ Church College
Founded by Cardinal Wolsey at the bidding of Henry VIII in 1532, Christ Church is famous for Old Tom, a tall tower that like the Great Tower at Magdalen College adds a special touch to the city’s skyline. The front quad has a statue of Mercury in the middle of a waterlily pond. Be sure to see the cathedral with its grand stained glass windows and high vaulted Gothic ceiling. From the gardens you can walk into Christ Church Meadow, a broad expanse of open greenery leading to the River Isis, the local name for the Thames. On a sunny day you shouldn’t miss it!

London day trip: Oxford

Oxford
London is one of the most popular destinations in Europe because of its eclectic shopping, crazy nightlife, and world-class museums and galleries. It can get a bit tiring and stressful, though. For those who want to get out of the Smoke and see a bit more of England, Oxford makes an easy and enjoyable day trip.

Getting there
The best way to get to Oxford from London is the Oxford Tube, which has regular bus service from various points in London up to four times an hour. There’s train service from Paddington station too, although it’s more expensive. There are also direct buses from Heathrow and Gatwick airports.

What to see
Oxford is famous for its university, one of the oldest in Europe. The Gothic and Victorian architecture of its more than two dozen colleges give Oxford much of its charm. Most are open to the public and feature beautiful quads with ivy-covered walls, and medieval chapels with stained glass and soaring roofs. Be sure to take a guided tour of the Bodleian Library, one of the largest in the world and home to some ornate medieval interiors. In the photo above courtesy Tejvanphotos, you can see the ornate Radcliffe Camera, one of the library buildings where I do research in the summer. If you see a guy in a Gadling t-shirt buried in a pile of books on medieval history, take him out for a pint.

Being a seat of learning, Oxford also has several good museums. Three of the best are the Pitt-Rivers for its ethnographic collection, the Ashmolean for its ancient artifacts, and the Museum of the History of Science. The River Thames passes through town and is locally called the Isis. There’s a pleasant riverside walk you can do, or you can strike out on the water by going punting. The best way to get orientated to Oxford is to go on one of the many tours. There are regular walking tours, bicycle tours, charity fundraising tours run by Oxfam, and ghost tours.

%Gallery-131760%Eating and Drinking
Oxford is filled with restaurants, many of them rather disappointing. Here are some of the better ones. The Grand Cafe is on the site of England’s first coffeehouse, built in 1650. Today it serves Continental cuisine in a refined atmosphere. The Vaults and Garden Cafe under the Church of St. Mary serves up healthy food and good coffee under the medieval vaults that give it its name. Chiang Mai Kitchen serves excellent Thai food. High tea at the Randolph Hotel is an Oxford tradition. For a more diverse selection, head down Cowley Road for a variety of Arab, Indian, Caribbean, and Slavic restaurants.

If you like English pubs, you’ll feel right at home here. The White Horse on Broad Street is popular with visitors as well as scholars who flee the Bodleian for a mid-afternoon pint. The Turf just off Queen’s Lane is another popular spot and has outside seating. The Eagle and Child on Saint Giles is famous for being the drinking spot of the Inklings, a writers’ group that included J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.

Hiking
Oxford makes a great base for hikes to nearby villages and ancient monuments. You can walk along the Thames Path to Abingdon, visit the Rollright Stones (a stone circle), see a folly, and hike England’s oldest road–the Ridgeway.

Staying Overnight
With so much to do, you might want to stay overnight. Unfortunately Oxford is filled with mediocre or just plain bad B&Bs and hotels, and they’re all overpriced. I’ve found only two I would recommend. The Ethos Hotel is in a quiet residential neighborhood and an easy walk into town. Some rooms come with a kitchenette so you can stock up food and save a bit of money. The Mercure Oxford Eastgate Hotel is utterly lacking in atmosphere but it’s right in the middle of the action on High Street. Living on a writer’s wages I’ve not tried the luxurious Randolph but I’ve heard it’s pretty good.

When to go
If at all possible avoid going in the summer, when Oxford is crammed with tourists and English-language students. The autumn is nice with the ivy changing color, and the spring is fine too. Winter isn’t as bad as you might think. Yes, it’s gold and gray, but the university hosts a lot of cultural life such as concerts and lectures during term time.

Roman bath discovered in York

Roman, Roman bath. York
The remains of a Roman bath have been discovered in York in northern England.

Archaeologists made the find while excavating ahead of construction of the new City of York Council Headquarters. York (then called Eboracum) was an important trading center in Roman times. So important, in fact, that it had more than one bath. The image above is from the basement of the Roman Bath pub, where a small museum shows off the remains of another bath.

Based on coins and pottery found at the site, the newly discovered bath dates from the late second and early third centuries AD. The site will be open to the public for free this weekend.

Unlike many Roman cities, York continued to be important mercantile and religious center in the later Anglo-Saxon and Viking periods. The Yorkshire Museum exhibits a huge collection of Viking artifacts from an earlier excavation.

Public bathhouses were very popular in Roman culture. They included cold, warm, and hot pools and places for relaxation and socializing. The best preserved example is at the appropriately named city of Bath, an easy day trip from London.