Aunty Pip started work at Bletchley Park in 1943. By then it was already a big operation. She would have been eighteen or nineteen. I’d long wanted to take my family there. Pip was the connection, the blood tie to the past, but even without that deeper link, there’s something very special about Bletchley.
The welcome exhibit is something like a forty’s railway waiting room with period posters on the wall. Scratchy radio broadcasts and newsreel suck you back in time, tee you up for what’s to come. It was a cold rainy day but we booked onto the walking tour all the same. Our guide skilfully painted a picture of life at Bletchley during the war and the sheer scale of what was created here; how quickly, efficiently and secretly the skills needed were brought to one place and given such a clear purpose: to decode the Nazi radio traffic. These days, it takes us two decades to build a railway.
We were led around the lake, shown the old stables that were emptied of horses and pressed into office service for want of working space. There were tennis courts to distract from the tedium of long shift work, dancing lessons, row boats for the lake. It wasn’t difficult to imagine Aunty Pip, every day, streaming through the wide wrought-iron gates along with hundreds, thousands even, of others (mostly women) to work in the code-breaking huts. Like everyone else, she kept the work secret for decades after the war, until it was declassified. Even at the time, her little brother (my dad) and her parents, living with her in nearby Woburn Sands, had no idea what she was doing.
I only got to know Pip well when we moved to Worthing in 2005. She was in her eighties by then. We’d drop in to keep an eye on her and her husband John, but in truth, they looked after us far more than we looked after them; mainly with cake and time. Even if you arrived unannounced, the tea would quickly be made and the pot brought in on a wobbly tray full of scones, Victoria sponge and biscuits. Seconds were mandatory. It was hazardous to a man of low willpower like me. Not that they ever took ‘no thank you’ as an acceptable answer from anyone. And then the sherry would come out. They had a way of slowing down your day. Company and family came before everything else. They both passed away now just a couple of years ago, but I still fancy I’m carrying a few pounds laid down while taking tea in their armchairs. I miss them. I miss the implicit reassurance of them just being nearby, kettle and wisdom at the ready.
Even into her nineties, Pip still kept a sparkle in her eyes, as if she kept more secrets than just Bletchley Park. And she was fiercely intelligent. After the war she worked for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office where the modern-day intelligence services were hatched. Then she went to Sommerville College, Oxford, using some of the Bletchley technologies to process mass surveys on nutrition during post war rationing. It’s no surprise to me that she wanted to see people were well fed.
After our tour we took lunch in the cafe, a converted code-breaking hut. There was piped forties music and a wartime menu (portions scaled up). I ate bubble and squeak from a blue rimmed, white enamel bowl. There were enormous scotch eggs, bigger than you needed, and rich hot chocolate. Wonderful. We all left smiling.
Full and warm, we moved into the Mansion to learn more about some of the key players at Bletchley, but the thousands who worked in the huts and changed the course of the war are not forgotten. There are screens where you can type in a name and see if it’s logged on the Roll of Honour that holds details of all the people known to have worked here. It’s online too. .We typed in Florence Buxton (my aunt had lots of names) and it reported:
Miss Florence Joyce “Jo” Buxton (Sayer)
Summary of Service
Bletchley Park 1943 - 1946. Hut 4, CMY. Supervisor co-ordinating coverage by Y Station of Axis diplomatic signals.
Hut 4, we thought. We were yet to visit the renovated working huts. We could see most of them on the other side of the park, clumped clandestinely together. Pip’s must be over there. They all wore a big white square with a number: 3, 6, 8, 11, but no 4. Deflated, I looked at the guide-map and saw that there was in fact a hut 4, back next to the Mansion. It had been converted into the café. Aunty Pip had fed us again.